Ninety-three points separate the top five drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship with five races to go, creating a large but not insurmountable spread between leader Scott Dixon and those chasing him.
In what was billed as a weekend where Dixon would further cement his championship lead, the lead Chip Ganassi Racing driver stayed away from the top of the timesheet through the three practice sessions at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. With Dixon not making headlines, the attention went to Sebastien Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal.
Through Practice 2 on Friday afternoon, Dixon hadn’t even cracked the top five on the combined timesheet. Instead, he languished with the eighth-fastest lap at more than four-tenths of a second back from Hunter-Reay.
At the end of Friday’s running, Dixon sounded less than optimistic about the team’s progress heading into qualifying day at Mid-Ohio.
“It was hard to piece a lap together today, really,” said Dixon. “But things can change pretty quickly in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“I think we’re in a bit of a box with our thinking here today with the car. We might need to change a few things to make the car better. Tonight will be a lot of hard work to get the PNC Bank car where we want it to be.”
Speeds were not appreciably higher across the board in Saturday morning’s Practice 3 with Hunter-Reay’s best on Friday holding station on the combined timesheet. Dixon did manage to parlay overnight changes to his No. 9 Honda into a faster lap time, improving by 0.1510 seconds to land seventh.
Qualifying proved to be as challenging as practice for Dixon. He managed to advance to Round 2 after turning a 1:05.4750 in Group 2, going 0.2510 seconds quicker than Conor Daly but 0.0436 seconds slower than Graham Rahal.
The top six in Round 2 was split evenly between Chevrolet and Honda, but Dixon’s Honda wasn’t on the list as he failed to punch a ticket to the Firestone Fast 6. Despite a red flag that impeded his chance at a fast lap late in the session, Dixon’s advancement to the next round was far from a sure thing.
“I think it would’ve been tight for us without the red flag to get through, but you never really know,” said Dixon after qualifying. “The PNC Bank car was good and we had definitely made gains from Q1 to Q2 there.”
More than the red flag, though, was an allegation of qualifying interference by the eventual pole winner.
“The problem there was (Alexander) Rossi,” Dixon continued. “He came out in front of us and others in Turn 5 when we were on our fast lap. We would have easily made it through. I think he screwed (Josef) Newgarden, too. We just couldn’t finish the lap and it was a bit of a bummer.”
At the end of the 10-minute Round 2 outing, Dixon’s best time placed him ninth on the timesheet, setting up a fifth-row start next to James Hinchcliffe — the driver who caused the aforementioned red flag.
While Dixon still has a comfortable points lead heading into the 13th of 17 races in 2018, Rossi gained one point on his rival with his third pole of the season.
The 90-lap race is set to go green Sunday at 3:42 p.m. CDT with Rossi looking to convert his pole into a victory, further shaking up the title fight as the series moves beyond Ohio to its final four races the season.