Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon entered this year’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach with a 27-point deficit to points leader Josef Newgarden and managed to minimize the damage to his championship defense despite a challenging weekend.
Dixon’s speed on the 1.968-mile, 11-turn street circuit was evident from the drop of the first green flag Friday morning when he placed second in Practice 1. The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran backed up the performance with the top spot in Practice 2 and the third-fastest lap in Saturday’s final practice.
Entering qualifying, Dixon looked like a lock to challenge for the pole position. He easily moved out of Group 2 and topped Round 2’s group of 12, punching his ticket to the Firestone Fast Six. During that final round, however, he aborted a fast lap and. instead of beginning another, ducked into the pits without mounting a proper challenge against repeat pole sitter Alexander Rossi.
Dixon started second in the 85-lap race and made a run for the lead on both the initial start and the Lap 4 restart. Unable to overtake Rossi heading into Turn 1, Dixon slotted the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda behind the leading NAPA Auto Parts car of Rossi and quickly found himself losing time.
The ever-growing gap between Rossi and Dixon during their first stint, which lasted through Lap 26, was attributable to tire strategy and the use of scuffed Firestone Firehawk red-sidewalled alternate tires.
“We took a pretty big gamble to start on used reds for the initial part of the race,” said Dixon. “I think I abused them a little too much trying to hold the gap with Rossi. The rears just fell off on me, especially on the last four or five laps.”
While Dixon was on old tires, Rossi’s Honda was fitted with a fresh set of alternates. Rossi used this advantage to pull 6.6 seconds up the road by Lap 23.
Already behind, Dixon’s first pit stop took place three laps earlier than Josef Newgarden’s and two before Will Power’s — a potential strategic blunder at a track like Long Beach.
“We knew we were going to be in trouble because it’s a bit of a momentum track,” said Dixon. “If you stay out longer, you’re going to jump the people in front. The two Penskes jumped us.”
Running fourth after the stop, a battle with Power for the third position went Dixon’s way when the two went side by side down the long main straightaway. Power ended up in the runoff area while Dixon safely made the turn.
But fortune didn’t smile on Dixon for long: A refueling issue on his second stop dropped him down the running order and stole track position from the blue and orange Honda.
“We had, I think, an 18- or 20-second pit stop there which definitely killed us,” Dixon continued. “The car was really strong on the new reds in the last stint. We were able to catch that pack, get (Ryan) Hunter-Reay, then had the fight there with Graham (Rahal).”
Thanks to Dixon’s late-race speed on the new red tires, dropping down to the fifth position wasn’t as disastrous as it might have otherwise been. He passed Hunter-Reay on Lap 82 and dueled with Rahal on the final lap.
Even through Dixon crossed the finish line in the fourth position, INDYCAR ruled that Rahal’s defensive driving crossed the line into blocking and penalized the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver one position. Thus, Dixon was elevated to third in the final results, marking his third podium finish of 2019 and 107th of his career.
The result helped keep Dixon within 33 markers of championship leader Newgarden, whose second-place finish helped bolster his run to a second series title.
While the points remained close, Dixon’s rank took a hit thanks as Rossi’s victory promoted him to second in the standings. Although ranked third, Dixon sits only five points behind Rossi as the series heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for two races during the month of May.
The points battle will continue May 11 at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, May 18–19 at Indianapolis 500 qualifying and May 26 when the Indianapolis 500 pays out double points for each position.
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