Dixon parlays close second in race into rousing championship victory

JOLIET, Ill. -- Scott Dixon came oh-so-close to winning the PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil 300 at Chicagoland Speedway, the final points-paying race of the 2008 IndyCar Series season.

Coming second in the second-closest race in IndyCar history was a bitter pill to swallow. But Dixon's sorrow was fleeting, because his runner-up finish behind Helio Castroneves was more than enough for him to clinch his second series championship.

In fact, for a few minutes, Dixon and Target Chip Ganassi Racing believed they had completed a magical double, winning both the race and the season championship. Timing and scoring monitors indicated that Dixon won the race by one-thousandth of a second, which would have been the closest race in series history.

But a few minutes later, the Indy Racing League issued revised results after examining evidence from a photo finish camera that is used whenever the margin of victory is less than six-thousandths of a second. The camera showed that Castroneves was actually the winner by 0.0033 of a second.

In terms of distance, that works out to 12 1/8 inches.

"That definitely would have topped off the day; a record-breaking seventh win like that would have been fantastic," Dixon said. "It was definitely the craziest victory circle I've been involved in. When you see your car get rolled into position and you get out like you've won the race, and then they roll it off and take off your hat and say you haven't won the race. That was tough to deal with.

"But in the back of my mind, I knew we had won the championship, and that was the main goal."

The result definitely did not come easy for Dixon. In the early and middle stages of the 200-lap contest, he fell as low as 12th place, stuck in a midfield pack of cars while the leading Penske team controlled the pace and tried to save fuel.

Quality pit stops from the No. 9 crew put Dixon back into the top five, and then he demonstrated that he had the pace to win the race until Castroneves shot past with a last-ditch effort.

As it has for the past three years, the title was decided on the final lap at Chicagoland. Dixon took the white flag with a slim lead over Castroneves, but Castroneves used a push out of Turn 4 from Penske Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe to slingshot past Dixon on the run to the finish line.

"There were some people we were racing with that we didn't need to be, and that's why we kind of slipped back a bit," Dixon said. "We just needed to make sure we got back up there.

"We definitely wanted to win the race, and we fought very closely with Helio in those last few laps. He was definitely giving us the squeeze on the bottom there, and then he just sort of came through with the run."

Dixon was the dominant driver of the 2008 season, winning six races to Castroneves' two. He also set an IndyCar Series record with 899 laps led, including 14 on Sunday. But a remarkable eight second-place finishes and a strong finishing kick kept Castroneves within striking distance of his rival and extended the battle for the championship right down to the wire.

The Brazilian cut Dixon's advantage from 78 points to 30 points in the two races heading into Chicagoland. Sunday's result left the final championship margin at 17 points.

"I think we had our minds set on tying it up a long time before now, and I think that's what ran us into a bit of trouble," Dixon admitted. "It was definitely the toughest two weeks I've had, and even today, Team Penske and Helio wouldn't let it go. They were pushing to make sure they had the most laps led, and you have to take your hat off to them for doing all that they needed to do."

Dixon arrived in America in 1999 to compete in the Indy Lights series as a pudgy 18-year-old. He won the Lights title for PacWest Racing in 2000, then scored PacWest's final CART Indy car victory at Nazareth Speedway in 2001, setting the record for the series' youngest-ever winner.

When PacWest folded in mid-2002, Chip Ganassi snapped up the young New Zealander. It might have been one of the most savvy driver signings of Ganassi's career. Upon switching from CART to the Indy Racing League in 2003, Dixon won the championship on his first attempt, coming out on top in a five-driver title shootout with a second-place finish in the season finale at Texas Motor Speedway.

Now a ripe old 27, Dixon rates this year's accomplishment as much more significant, now that the IndyCar Series has added road and street races and incorporated the remains of the Champ Car World Series.

Scott Dixon

The year as a whole has been amazing -- an unforgettable year. I still can't believe it -- getting married, winning the 500 and winning the championship in one year. I don't think there are too many people who can say that.

-- Scott Dixon

"It means a lot more," he said. "I think this year is much tougher. In '03 we didn't really know what we had won then. It was my rookie season in the IRL for me, and for the team at that point as well. With five guys mathematically [eligible], to come out on top was pretty staggering. We definitely jumped pretty deep into that hole.

"Then after '04 and '05 [when Dixon went winless with inferior Toyota engines], I guess you cherish things a lot more. I've been with Ganassi for seven years now, and so have many of the guys, and I know what goes into building the cars. It means a ton more than the first year. To accomplish the disciplines we have now with short ovals, medium-sized tracks, superspeedways, street courses and road courses, I think you definitely get a true champion out of that. For us to be the first to win it on that kind of level is pretty special."

With six wins in 16 starts this year, Dixon stamped his authority on the IndyCar Series from the start. He won the season opener and the Indianapolis 500 to boot, all against what was consistently the largest and most competitive field in the 13-year history of Indy car racing under IRL sanction. And he's not done yet.

"The year as a whole has been amazing -- an unforgettable year," Dixon said. "I still can't believe it -- getting married, winning the 500 and winning the championship in one year. I don't think there are too many people who can say that."

"I said to Chip, 'That's number two, and we've got many more to come,'" he added. "It's a shame to lose Dan [Wheldon]; we worked well together, he's definitely a great friend and will be for a long time. But with Dario [Franchitti] coming on board, we'll have the last two [Indianapolis] 500 champions and series champions, so it's definitely going to be a strong package. This is going to be a tough team to beat."

Not many people would argue with that statement.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.