Scott Dixon's days of flying under the radar are over.
The New Zealand native won the 2003 IndyCar Series championship as a 23-year-old "rookie" who happened to have two years of CART Champ Car experience under his belt. Two subsequent years of contesting a gunfight with a knife (a.k.a. racing against Honda in the IRL with Toyota power) almost made Dixon a forgotten man, but any doubts that he had lost skill or motivation were erased by a spectacular, four- win 2007 season in which Dixon came up about a quarter-mile short of a second IndyCar Series championship.
Dixon and everyone else in the IndyCar field were written off halfway through 2007. But Dixon and the No. 9 side of Target/Ganassi Racing came all the way back to take the championship lead over Dario Franchitti, only to see it slip away on the last lap of the last two races. At the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, Dixon was swept into an accident when Buddy Rice ran out of fuel in front of him, while in the Chicagoland Speedway finale, Dixon led the fateful last lap until his Dallara-Honda ran dry entering Turn 3.
It was a painful way to lose a race and a title, but Dixon said he rebounded quickly.
"It was just one of those surreal instances where you don't really want to believe it, though I was definitely angry for a few days after," he said. "A couple days later you're still thinking about it, but then you just tend to forget about it and understand what a great year you had. At least you were fighting at the end. It was a tough way, but it was a great way to see Dario leave the series and he's a great competitor. You can't look at it as too bad."
With Franchitti and 2006 series and Indianapolis 500 champion Sam Hornish Jr. having departed for NASCAR, Dixon heads into 2008 as one of the heavy favorites to win the IndyCar Series championship. His top rivals are likely to include Penske Racing's Helio Castroneves, Andretti Green Racing's Tony Kanaan, and his own Target/Ganassi Racing teammate, Dan Wheldon.
Wheldon joined TCGR in 2006 and came within a tie-breaker of winning a second consecutive IndyCar Series crown. He generally outclassed Dixon during the '06 campaign, but the roles within the Ganassi team reversed in 2007 and Wheldon often struggled, particularly in the second half of the season.
"Things come and go," Dixon said. "We had a real strong last half of the season -- you can't doubt that. You just sort of build on it.
"Things start to get better and anything you touch seems to go well. I think that's what Dan had in '06. You can't put your finger on anything, it's a bunch of little things and once you get the momentum of winning a few races and getting a few seconds, it grows."
The Ganassi team should enter 2008 with an advantage because it is the only major team in the IndyCar Series that has not made a driver change. Ryan Briscoe, a former teammate of Dixon's, takes over for Hornish at Team Penske, while Franchitti's seat has been taken by rookie Hideki Mutoh.
"Scott Dixon last year finished first or second in 10 of 17 races," Ganassi told reporters Tuesday. "Add Dan's two wins to that and, you know, you would have to say our cars are the front quite a bit in that series. And they won't be having to worry about that guy that won the championship last year, so hopefully that will give them an opportunity to win more races and a championship.
"Having said that, you know, I don't want to take anything away from the Penske team or the Andretti Green team. They'll make a formidable challenge, I'm sure. They're not going to give us anything. But I look for [Dixon and Wheldon] to do really well."
Dixon is playing down any edge Ganassi might have, and said he believes the reconstituted Penske team in particular will be strong this year.
"We've had some changes in personnel -- nothing too major, mechanics here and there," Dixon noted. "You don't want to mess around too much; we had fantastic pit stops last year on the 9 car. Obviously you'd like to say that's going to hurt them, but there are some instances where change is quite good as well, so we'll see how it goes.
"Briscoe is a good friend and definitely a guy that is very quick," he added. "And Helio's got a lot of confidence going now after his victory in 'Dancing With The Stars' and I think he'll carry that momentum in. I think the Penske team is going to be real tough to beat."
Yet Dixon and Wheldon are pumped up as well as they start their third year together as teammates. Dixon said he believes the key to a second title will be starting the season on a high note.
"We're pretty confident with our team and I think Dan and myself are really focused this year," Dixon said. "We've come runner-up the last two years and nobody likes that. We definitely want to fight it out, hopefully between ourselves. I definitely think both sides of our team have a great shot at winning the championship and both of us are hopefully going to start with a bang.
"I just want to be aggressive and try to keep that roll going and keep people thinking about what we're doing. I want to start the season more aggressive. I think that's what hurt us last year is that we just didn't have the start that we needed to finish it off."
Despite scoring more points than any other driver over the last two years and dominating most of the IndyCar Series road races, Dixon can still find room for improvement.
We're pretty confident with our team and I think Dan [Wheldon] and myself are really focused this year. We've come runner-up the last two years and nobody likes that. We definitely want to fight it out, hopefully between ourselves.
-- Scott Dixon
"We need to be a little bit better on the short ovals still," he said. "We ended up third and fourth at Milwaukee this year, which was an improvement, and at Richmond we were second and third. But I want to head back to where we were in '03 where we had fast, dominant cars on those short ovals.
"The other is definitely qualifying for the road courses. I want to step that up a bit more, though I think our race car seems to be very fast. I didn't get as much out of it as I would have liked in qualifying."
Even though he would like to add a second IndyCar Series championship to his trophy case, Dixon said winning one race in particular is a bigger goal for him.
"Absolutely the [Indy] 500 -- no doubt about that," he vowed. "For me, Indy is right at the top of the checklist. I love the place and winning it might even change your view a bit. It just makes you want to win it again that much more."
Prior to opening his 2008 campaign in the Rolex 24 sports car race with his Ganassi teammates, Dixon spent his offseason training for his pilot's license. He's scheduled to marry his fiancée, Emma, in mid-February in London before returning to the U.S. to begin IndyCar testing on the 27th.
"It is a long old offseason," Dixon acknowledged. "I've just started on my instrument rating and we've been traveling a lot, to London, New Zealand and America. So a lot of it has been on a bloody plane.
But after the Rolex 24, I test Wednesday at Homestead and Friday at Sebring for two days and then I'm off to London for the wedding.
"So life is going to get busy pretty quickly."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.