Dixon wins convincingly at Long Beach

Scott Dixon celebrates after winning the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for the first time in his career. Robert Laberge/Getty Images

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Scott Dixon has won 36 IndyCar Series races, more than all but four men with the names Foyt, Unser and Andretti.

Yet Dixon, along with the other top stars of the Verizon IndyCar Series, is often an afterthought when talk turns to the sport's all-time greats.

Maybe one day, people will understand just how talented the 34-year-old New Zealander really is. Until then, Dixon is perfectly happy to remain Indy car's quiet champion, a class act on and off the track who would be an asset to any racing series.

His victory Sunday in the 41st running of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach typified the stealthy approach that has made Dixon IndyCar's active leader in terms of race wins and a three-time series champion. From third on the grid, he gained a position at the start and kept leader (and pole man) Helio Castroneves in sight throughout the first stint.

When Castroneves was unintentionally balked by Dixon's Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan exiting his pit following the first round of stops, the No. 9 Target Chevrolet flashed through into a lead that Dixon would not relinquish.

He crossed the line 2.22 seconds ahead of Castroneves, whose Penske Racing teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud waged a thrilling battle for third another 11 seconds back.

St. Petersburg winner Montoya maintained the championship lead and Team Penske's four drivers are still tipped to dominate the championship. But if anyone can take the battle to the might of the Penske organization, it's Dixon.

"It feels amazing," said Dixon, who won an Indy car race at Long Beach for the first time in nine attempts. "This has been a tough track where we've had some bad luck, but also haven't always had the chance to get the job done.

"We finally got it right, I guess. Here and St. Pete have been tough races for me, so I think this is a big breakthrough for myself."

And just in the nick of time. Two races into the 2015 campaign, Dixon and the No. 9 team were off to their usual slow start, their races at St. Petersburg and NOLA Motorsports Park compromised by technical problems that left the three-time champion 15th in the standings.

At Long Beach, Dixon qualified third, and in a race run with just a single full-course caution, showed he had the speed to control the pace once he got out front.

Of course, there's no way of telling whether Dixon could have caught and passed Castroneves had Helio not been held in his pit by his crew chief for a couple extra seconds to allow Kanaan to maneuver into the pit box just ahead of his fellow Brazilian.

DIxon had a clean stop one lap earlier than Castroneves, and by the time Helio got back up to speed, Dixon was several hundred yards up the track. The lack of any full-course cautions never gave Castroneves a chance to get close enough to Dixon to attack.

"My guys did a great job in the pits, especially in the incident between me and the Ganassi car [Kanaan]," Castroneves said. "It was just perfect -- it was better to be safe than sorry."

Dixon played down any conspiracy theories about Kanaan intentionally blocking Castroneves in the pits. He had been running in fourth place on the track, but the timing of his entry into his pit just as Castroneves was ready to exit was purely coincidental.

"The same thing happened at St. Pete with me and Juan [Montoya]," Dixon explained. "It's unfortunate how the races play out sometimes. When you're leaving and the competitor in the next pit stall comes in, there's nothing you can do. If you leave, you're going to crash into him and break the car, so you just wait and lose time.

"Obviously a bit of a break for us today to get to that position," he added. "I think we would have been competitive at the end anyway, but that was definitely the game changer for us."

With plenty of good years ahead of him, Dixon is in position to end his career as one of the greatest Indy car drivers of all time. Ahead of him on the win list are A.J. Foyt (67), Mario Andretti (52), Michael Andretti (42) and Al Unser (39).

Bobby Unser, with whom Dixon was tied on 35 wins until Sunday, paid tribute to the man who passed him.

"Scott Dixon has a big, big abundance of talent and he has proven it over the years," Unser said. "Scott wins on ovals, big and small; street courses and road courses. I remember last year he came from dead last to win at Mid-Ohio.

"Dixon has talent and skill and will win races for years and years to come," he added. "He is always really fun to watch, for sure."

For now, Dixon is content to ignore records and focus on his quest for a fourth IndyCar Series championship. He won his previous titles in 2003, '08 and '13.

His victory Sunday vaulted him from 15th to fourth in this year's standings, 32 points behind Montoya, whose spirited defense of third place from teammate Pagenaud in the closing laps was one of the highlights of the Long Beach race.

Dixon believes that as long as he remains with Chip Ganassi's organization, the best could still be yet to come.

"You hope that's going to be the case," he remarked. "Dario Franchitti's return was pretty stout when he came back to Indy cars at age 35. Hopefully this is a career team, and with that combination, I think we can win a lot of races. Dario has a few more Indianapolis 500 wins, so we have to work on that!

"Stats are stats and hopefully something you can look back on when you're done with racing and be happy with it," he added. "For me to be in that group and list of names means a lot. They were my heroes and people I looked up to and still feel thankful to have them around in the racing community.

"But we're going to keep digging and hopefully we can add to this."