Indy 500 2012: Why Scott Dixon Is the Driver to Beat

James WalkerAnalyst IMay 25, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 18:  Scott Dixon prepares to drive the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car during Indianapolis 500 practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 18, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

For the past decade, Scott Dixon has been the fastest Australasian on the IndyCar grid. Next Sunday, however, it will be Australia’s Ryan Briscoe leading the field when the lights go green at the Brickyard.

Scott Dixon and the Chip Ganassi team have struggled to match the pace of Team Penske in the opening four races of the season and it seems that they have carried their turbulent form into the crown jewel of American motorsport.

Dixon qualified a lowly 15th, his worst-ever qualification at Indianapolis. Teammate Dario Franchitti starts 16, emphasising the difficulty Chip Ganassi Racing are having adjusting to 2012’s new regulations.

Dixon’s qualifying performance completes a hat trick of disappointment after poor finishes at Long Beach and Sao Paulo.

Despite such disappointing form, however, the Kiwi must be viewed as one of the leading candidates to lift the Borg Warner trophy.

Last season, Dixon found himself in strong contention to win IndyCar’s flagship race and could have won were it not for the need to save fuel. With 10 laps remaining, the Kiwi found himself in a four-way battle for victory, battling against rookie driver JR Hildebrand, Bertrand Baguette and Dan Wheldon.

In the climatic final four laps, however, Dixon had to back off the lead pace, ultimately finishing in fifth place, behind Wheldon, Hildebrand, Baguette and Tony Kanaan. If the New Zealander can stay out of trouble at the beginning of the race, he has all the credentials to mount a similar challenge for victory.

A solid qualifying performance was a fundamental reason why Dixon was able to challenge for victory in 2011, a luxury the New Zealander will not have this weekend. Despite this, there are plenty of reasons to draw encouragement from starting in the midfield.

Recent history shows that qualifying in the midfield does not compromise the opportunity to fight for the lead. In 2009, Dan Wheldon qualified 18th but finished second and he repeated the feat in 2010. Marco Andretti qualified 16th in 2010 and came third.

Most significantly JR Hildebrand started last season’s race in 12th and would have won were it not for a silly error on the exit of Turn 4 during the final lap.

In 2011, five of the top 10 finishers qualified 21st or lower, which reveals that it is not impossible for Dixon to negotiate his way around the field. 

Scott Dixon should be also be buoyed by promising times set in practice sessions. An average speed of 233.088 mph in a test on Friday, May 18 was the quickest of the day, although it is considerably slower than pole sitter Ryan Briscoe’s four lap average of 226.484 mph in qualifying.

It will be difficult for Chip Ganassi Racing to match the dominant pace of Team Penske, but last year’s race came down to fuel strategy and not engine power. The Chevrolet engine has been much superior to Chip Ganassi’s Honda power so far this season, but the Brickyard presents a different challenge altogether.   

Further to this, Dixon is a two-time IndyCar series champion and a one-time winner of the Indy 500. In nine starts at Indy, he has finished in the top 10 seven times and achieved four top 5 finishes. He has the experience and race craft to weave through the pack.

Last year, a victory eluded Scott Dixon; this year, he has the chance to avenge it.