KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- After a dreadful start to his 2009 season, Scott Dixon wasn't ready to panic. But he admitted that he did start to wonder whether defending championships was really his forte.
The 28-year-old New Zealander failed to finish the first two IndyCar Series races of the new campaign and lagged a distant 17th in the points standings heading into the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway. It was starting to remind Dixon of the 2004 season, when he failed to win a race and wound up 10th in the IndyCar championship a year after winning the title in his first year in the series.
What a difference a win can make. Dixon led 134 of 200 laps Sunday, beating the forecasted rain and the rest of the IndyCar Series field to claim a comfortable victory on the 1.5-mile speedway west of Kansas City. The result propelled the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver all the way up to fourth place in the points chase, 19 points behind leader Tony Kanaan of Andretti Green Racing, who finished third at Kansas.
The win also provided Dixon and the No. 9 team with a badly needed jump start as they head to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to defend their Indianapolis 500 triumph from a year ago.
"We needed something -- even a sniff of something -- because so far all we've had is a sniff of the tail end of the field," Dixon said. "That's frustrating, and I was starting to look back on 2004, and how that was a dismal season as well after we won a championship.
"I know the team can do it; we just needed to get everything right. This is a big boost for my confidence, the team's confidence, and a lot of momentum going into the month of May, which is our biggest race."
Dixon and the team led by crew chief Rick Davis and engineer Eric Bretzman have been the dominant force in the IndyCar Series since mid-2007. But they proved fallible in the first two races of 2009, as Dixon crashed out of the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., and finished a distant, lapped, 15th in Long Beach, Calif.
Meanwhile, new teammate Dario Franchitti won at Long Beach to vault into the championship lead, and the strain of the bad start to the season started to wear on Dixon and his crew.
But at Kansas, the Ganassi teammates' fortunes reversed. Franchitti was sent to the back of the grid after illegally crossing the track boundary line in his qualifying run, and Dario crashed out of the race while running seventh after misjudging his pit entry speed for the final scheduled stop of the afternoon.
Meanwhile, Dixon overcame a slightly slow second stop that dropped him to third place, only to have his crew make amends with a speedy final service that put him back into the lead for good with 45 laps remaining.
From there, he easily held off Helio Castroneves to win by 0.7104 seconds.
"We've had a lot of success with the same group of guys, so in the back of your mind, you're still confident" Dixon said. "You know can you do it, but you still have thoughts looming in the back of your head of bad seasons that we've had. There were definitely a lot of long faces coming out of Long Beach, and I know a lot of them were excited about coming to Kansas, the first oval of the season.
"But even Saturday night, we had a lot more work to do on our car just because of some things that we needed to change. You could tell, some people are maybe not as nice to each other as they should be. You can't beat an attitude when you've been winning races. I think it's definitely going to be a fantastic turn at the time we need it going into the speedway."
I've been telling a lot of people, and a lot of people have been telling me, that this place kind of owes me one.
”-- Scott Dixon
Dixon noted that, like most competitors in the IndyCar Series, he and the Ganassi team have two goals heading into any new season: winning the Indianapolis 500 and winning the overall series championship.
Coming off the high of finally winning at Kansas Speedway after suffering bitter disappointment there the past two years, he and the team are ready to attack the month of May.
"I've been telling a lot of people, and a lot of people have been telling me, that this place kind of owes me one," he said. "We've had successful cars here; last year I think we led just about every lap until the last pit stop and got caught out on a yellow. We cycled all the way back to 15th and got back up to third.
"It's right at the time that we need it that Kansas gives us a sort of a payback," he added. "More importantly, going into the 500, it's huge for the team."
Part of what makes the Indianapolis 500 such a tough race to conquer is the fact that the competitors are there for almost three weeks. If morale is poor, those three weeks can seem like three months. Conversely, if a team is firing on all cylinders, what seems like a grind to those who are struggling can feel like a normal three-day race weekend.
Dixon relishes the challenge of defending his Indy victory, and he's heading into the month of May in the best possible frame of mind.
"Indy comes quite early in the season, so you can still chase for a championship later on in the year," he said. "But you've got to come out with your A-game. Unfortunately, through a little bit of bad luck and circumstances for us this year we haven't really done that, so we definitely needed to step it up.
"I'm definitely excited going into Indy and the month of May. Going back as defending champion, obviously for the first time ever, is going to be a lot of fun."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.