Dixon carries confidence into Mid-Ohio as title fight heats up

Scott Dixon is the defending winner of the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, and he did it starting from the rear. AP Photo/Tom E. Puskar

STEAM CORNERS, Ohio -- Does Scott Dixon have Juan Pablo Montoya and the Verizon IndyCar Series field right where he wants them?

Dixon is third in the IndyCar standings, 48 points behind championship leader Montoya with three races remaining in the 2015 season. But the New Zealander and his No. 9 team from Chip Ganassi Racing have a history of ending the year strongly, and there is no better place for the rally to start than Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Dixon has won five times in 10 IndyCar starts at the undulating and technical road course sited between Cleveland and Columbus, and he's done it in every way possible. A year ago, he started dead last on the grid and still crossed the line first.

"There are guys in the IndyCar Series that run really well at Mid-Ohio, so we need to bring our A-game this weekend," was the oblique assessment Montoya made in Team Penske's pre-race media briefing.

"Mid-Ohio is a place where I've won before, so I know what it takes to be successful there," added the championship leader.

It's true. Montoya won at Mid-Ohio in his first IndyCar start there, back in 1999, when he won seven races on the way to the CART-sanctioned title as a rookie. Helio Castroneves -- fourth in this year's standings -- is a two-time winner, and like Montoya, those wins coming in the CART era in 2000 and 2001.

But nobody masters Mid-Ohio's tricky corner combinations like Dixon, who somehow manages to save more fuel than his competitors while still being faster.

"This place is all about a technical tactician driving the car," said Mike Hull, the managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing who also calls strategy on the radio for the No. 9 car.

"You cannot make up for a mistake at Mid-Ohio until you're three or four corners down the road," Hull continued. "There's so much rhythm involved in the first part right in all of the complexes of corners. You pay the price until you get yourself straightened out mentally and get the car mechanically going straight again. That's why guys like Dixon do well here."

Dixon himself can't explain it. He said the Ganassi team just has a great baseline setup for Mid-Ohio, like Andretti Autosport is locked into Iowa Speedway or Team Penske dominates Sonoma Raceway.

Although he has won in the past at Mid-Ohio by margins of up to 30 seconds, last year may have been Dixon's best performance there yet. After a rare mistake in qualifying, he was fast when he needed to be during the race to earn perhaps the most remarkable of his 36 career IndyCar race wins.

"It's tough to pass here, but we had a lot of help from Ryan Hunter-Reay, who spun out at the right time and caused the caution that we needed to switch our strategy and go on to win the race," Dixon recalled. "I think the team has 10 wins now there so it's quite a milestone and obviously a place that I really enjoy."

This year's Mid-Ohio race weekend got off to markedly different starts for Dixon and Montoya. Dixon was fastest in the Friday afternoon session, creeping within 0.6 second of the track record on a track where IndyCar's 2015 aero kits are really showing their effect.

Montoya, meanwhile, missed most of the first practice session with an alternator problem, and he was just 21st out of 24 entries in the afternoon.

Graham Rahal, who has charged up to second in the standings, 42 points behind Montoya, had a much better day.

Rahal, an Ohio native, is wearing a commemorative helmet painted like an Ohio State football helmet this weekend. His fourth-place run on Friday was the best opening day he's had all year for the team run by his father, Bobby, in partnership with comedian David Letterman.

"The Steak 'n Shake car is a bit of a handful for sure," Graham Rahal said. "If we can be as close as we are with it like it is, I feel good about where we can be going forward."

It was a solid opening day for Honda, which placed five cars in the top 10, led by Rahal.

Sebastien Bourdais, a two-time winner in 2015, and Team Penske's Will Power were the second- and third-quickest on Friday in Chevrolets.

Defending IndyCar Series champion Power is fifth in the standings, a not-insurmountable 55 points behind teammate Montoya.

"There has certainly been no lack of speed in the No. 1 Verizon Chevy this year, so I see no reason why we can't be fighting for the win," Power remarked.

"I would really love to get a win at Mid-Ohio," he added. "It's something I haven't been able to do yet in my career, and it would set us up well for the run to the end of the year at Sonoma.

"These final three tracks are all places where I know we can run well and allow us to make a championship push."