JOLIET, Ill. — Memories of the finish of last season’s IndyCar Series race at Chicagoland Speedway are a recurring nightmare for Scott Dixon and a beacon of hope for Helio Castroneves.
Dixon vividly recalls the frustration of running out of fuel halfway through the last lap on the 1.5-mile oval, giving both the race win and the championship to Dario Franchitti.
Castroneves, who goes into Sunday’s PEAK Indy 300 trailing Dixon by 30 points in the 2008 title duel, clings happily to the knowledge that anything can happen while racing for 300 miles at speeds over 200 mph. And he’s done his best to get inside Dixon’s head, even while trying to keep things friendly.
“I keep joking with him, ‘I don’t wish you any bad luck or anything, I just wish you less luck than me,’” a chuckling and obviously relaxed Castroneves said Friday while sitting in a Team Penske motorhome at the track. “The good news is Scott respects me the way I respect him. This is a good and healthy competition and I think we’re in a great position to win the championship.”
There may be more than a bit of bravado in his words, considering that Dixon can wrap up his second IndyCar title — and deprive the Brazilian of his first — simply by finishing eighth or better on Sunday. And, even if Dixon does have a bad day, Castroneves still needs to win or finish second to have any chance.
A year ago, Dixon was the hunter instead of the hunted, entering the race three points behind Franchitti after a late-season charge. When it was over, Franchitti, then driving for Andretti Green Racing, had won the championship by 13 points.
“It was tough for me and for the whole team when that happened,” Dixon said. “We didn’t get off to a very good start last season and fought back really strong. But you take nothing for granted in racing. And we won’t take anything for granted at Chicago.”
The first work day following last year’s race, Chip Ganassi Racing held a meeting that included everyone in its Indianapolis shop. Dixon said everyone rededicated themselves to winning this championship.
And it looked like a runaway for a while, with Dixon holding a 78-point lead — his biggest of the season — after beating Castroneves at Kentucky on Aug. 9. But Castroneves refused to give up with three races remaining.
“These guys (at Team Penske) will tell you, I never lost faith,” Castroneves said. “I told them if there is a chance, we’re going to go after it.
“In the beginning of this year, they had all the momentum and everything good was happening to them,” he added. “Now we have the momentum.”
In the past two races, Castroneves has taken the initiative, finally getting his first checkered flag of the season at Sonoma, then finishing second — his eighth runner-up finish of the season — last week at Detroit. Meanwhile, Dixon has faltered, finishing 12th and fifth.
Worse for Dixon, his team made questionable strategic calls in each of those races that cost him valuable finishing positions.
But the odds certainly still favor the points leader.
While Dixon is winless at Chicagoland, he has been the strongest performer this season on 1.5-mile ovals. Three of his record-tying six victories in 2008 have come on the mile and a half tracks, and he has third-place finishes at the other two.
Castroneves has a second and three fourths in six starts here, including fourth-place finishes the last two years. On the 1.5-mile ovals this year, he has three runner-up finishes and two fourths.
“I think we’ve got to just keep doing what we’ve been doing all season, and that’s trying to go out and win races,” Dixon said. “I want to try to qualify on pole, and I want to try to win the race. If you do that, you’re definitely going to win the championship.
“So, obviously, we want to beat one person, that’s Helio. We want to do it in style. If we’re able to go for a record seven victories in a single season, that’s definitely what we’re going to try to do. It won’t be anything conservative from us.”
In five starts at the Chicagoland track, Dixon has four runner-up finishes, including last year when he coasted across the line.
“It’s a tough circuit,” Dixon said. “It’s one of those that provides great racing and (it’s) definitely nailbiting for a championship race, which is exactly what the fans want and everybody that’s watching. I guess they’ll definitely get that.”