In the heart of ‘Dixie’ beats a 2012 title contender

Encumbered with slow starts the past few seasons, Scott Dixon isn't about to downplay the efforts of the Target Chip Ganassi Racing crew in developing the new car and Honda engine package this young season.

In fact, sitting second in the championship after two events is his best foundation since winning the second of his IZOD IndyCar Series titles in 2008. Runner-up in both races – the latter for the third year in a row at Barber Motorsports Park – has Dixon two points arrears of front-runner Helio Castroneves (84) heading to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15.

Will Power, who finished 3.3709 seconds ahead of Dixon in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 1, has 77 points.

"Every race pays the same amount of points. My issue has been the start of the season, so we've tried to start strong," said Dixon, the standard bearer for the new 2.2-liter, turbocharged V-6 Honda engine in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car. "We've tried to be consistent, maybe not take as many risks as we should, but also emphasize qualifying in a good position and making the most of it.

"All around as a team, with our package, I don't think we're there yet. But I think once we get a few things figured out on the car and the engine package, I think we're going to be strong. If we can put points in the bag at the moment, try and gain on that later in the year, we should be in a good position."

The runner-up finishes moved Dixon into ninth on the all-time Indy car list with 28. A look at Dixon's results to begin the past few seasons:

2011: St. Petersburg (start 3, finish 16); Barber (start 3, finish 2); Long Beach (start 8, finish 18); Sao Paulo (start 3, finish 12). Season – Third (-65 points)

2010: Sao Paulo (start 7, finish 6); St. Petersburg (start 3, finish 18); Barber (start 5, finish 2); Long Beach (start 8, finish 4). Season – Third (-55 points)

2009: St. Petersburg (start 8, finish 16); Long Beach (start 6, finish 15); Kansas (start 4, finish 1); Indianapolis (start 5, finish 6). Season – Second (-11 points)

"Points championships are so tough," Dixon continued. "(We're trying to) sort of taking out a page of Dario (Franchitti's) notebook from the last few years and being consistent. He hasn't won as many races as some others, but he's always there on a bad day and a good day. We have to try to do the same thing."

In '08, Dixon kicked off the season with a victory from the pole at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and followed with a victory (Indianapolis 500) and a pair of third-place finishes in three of the next four races. In that title-winning season, he recorded six victories and 14 top-five finishes in 17 races. That's the consistency he mentioned.

Dixon started third of 26 entries at Barber Motorsports Park and believed he had the car to beat.

"Good points for the first two races, but definitely disappointed with today's result," he said.

Quick work on his first service stop on Lap 26 enabled Dixon to jump from third to first when race leader Graham Rahal pitted, and led under the next round of pit stops on Lap 47. He regained the point from Lap 50-65 – being pursued closely by Power throughout) before making his final stop for 18.5 gallons of E85 and tires.

"I believe the middle stop and the last stop we had a bit of a fumble on one of the tires," Dixon noted. "The middle one took a lot longer. Tires are done normally about the same time as fuel. You feel the fuel pull out and you're still on the air jack.

"On the out lap I would say Will gained two or three seconds just because he wasn't in traffic. Then I think they were maybe a little bit quicker on their stop as well. Between that and trying to get out of the pits behind (E.J.) Viso, I'd say we lost three or four seconds in that, which gave Will the advantage."

Power, who pitted for the third and final time in the 90-lpa race on the 2.38-mile road course on Lap 65 and inherited the lead when Castroneves drove down pit lane three laps later, made the most of any advantage on a course that favors the front-runner.

"If you get out front, it's very hard to stay close," Dixon continued. "There's so many high-speed corners. Eventually you burn the tires off. To have a dominant race and a car I think definitely if we were out front at the end would have led to the same thing and pulled away from Will.

"It's frustrating when you're in a scenario like that and you don't collect on the win. I'd say the last two years that was probably kind of as good as we were going to get."

Speaking of good, Power credited his crew and race strategist Tim Cindric with flawless execution on a humid afternoon.

"Good stops and good strategy calls put me out in clean air so we could use our speed," said Power, who picked up his 16th Indy car victory to tie the late Dan Wheldon. "We slowly passed one by one. The strategy was perfect. The stops were perfect. We were quick when we needed to be, put ourselves in a position to win.

"I think that was the key to the race, keeping out of traffic, pitting at the right times."

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