AVONDALE, Ariz. — Recap by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Richard Dowdy/IndyCar photo —
Scott Dixon continued to quietly add to his growing list of accolades in American open wheel competition, leading 155 of 250 laps during Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix to capture the victory at the 1.022-mile Phoenix International Raceway in a dominating performance.
The New Zealander took the lead from Juan Pablo Montoya on lap 96 and never trailed the rest of the way, holding off the field despite six cautions — including a race-ending yellow for debris on the frontstretch with two laps remaining that sealed the trip to Gatorade Victory Lane for the four-time and defending Indy car champion.
The win was Dixon’s first of the season and the 39th of his illustrious career, tying him for fourth with four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Under Sr. for fourth on the all-time Indy car list at just 35 years old.
“That was tough,” Dixon said after nearly “falling” off the top of his No. 9 Target Dallara-Chevrolet in celebration of the win. “That was definitely one of the toughest races that we go through, on these short ovals. Right now, though, I’m just so happy for this team and for Chip Ganassi. It’s fantastic to get the lightning bolt back to victory lane; it’s the first win for this team at Phoenix in any series … and it’s just an awesome feeling. I just tried to keep it on the track tonight.”
While he did dominate the proceedings, the reigning champion was somewhat critical of the lack of action that took place around the front of the field all night long.
“It was our first time back (at Phoenix) in 10 years, yes, but I definitely think that we (as a series) could make some adjustments (to the package) to get some more side-by-side racing going on. … It was okay — of course we have to thank the fans for coming out and supporting this — but I can’t wait to come back next year and hopefully have it be even better.”
Helio Castroneves started from the Verizon Pole Position and edged out in front of fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan in the early stages, but the story of the opening laps was Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. The 2012 Indy car champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner started 12th but blitzed the outside lane off the start, climbing all the way to seventh before five laps were gone off the scoreboard.
Juan Pablo Montoya would quietly move past Kanaan just before the 25-lap benchmark, closing to the rear wing of the No. 3 REV Group Dallara-Chevrolet of Castroneves and stalking his Team Penske stablemate before Castroneves lost a right front tire entering turn one on the 40th round. A caution 10 laps later, for a solo spin in turn two by oval rookie Luca Filippi, would pin the polesitter two laps down as the rest of the field came to pit road for their first service of the night.
Montoya would hold the lead off pit exit and resume green flag conditions on lap 65, chased by reigning series champion Scott Dixon as the Kiwi snuck into second during the cycle of service. While Hunter-Reay made a solid inside move to take fourth from Will Power on the restart, the field strung out largely single-file as the race stretched towards the 100-lap mark.
Five laps before a century went up on the scoreboard, however, Montoya lost a right front tire in almost the exact same way his teammate Castroneves did — but he too was able to keep his Dallara-Chevrolet entry out of the wall as he ducked to pit road. The former series champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner also lost two laps due to the unscheduled service, and Dixon took over the top spot officially on lap 96.
Pit stops began on the 115th round, but a caution crossing lap 119 for a slowed Carlos Munoz on the outside of the frontstretch pinned all but nine cars a lap or more down — giving Chip Ganassi Racing an easy one-two, as well as four of the top seven spots, while the charging Hunter-Reay was mired back in 12th after running as high as third in the opening half.
The third start of the night would see Dixon jet away working lap 133, but a lap later, Charlie Kimball came down hard on eighth-running Josef Newgarden entering turn one and nearly forced the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Dallara-Chevrolet into the pit wall — spinning his own No. 83 Tresiba-sponsored machine in the process as Newgarden drove away with front wing damage. The incident would quickly slow the pace again, setting up a Dixon versus Will Power showdown out front when the green returned at lap 143.
With the yellow, Hunter-Reay returned to the lead lap as Kimball lost it by virtue of a drive-through penalty by the stewards, keeping the number of cars on pace at 11 as the field closed in on 100 laps to go. Another yellow — this time for Sebastien Bourdais kissing the wall exiting turn four — would reduce the speed just three laps later, though, setting up a shootout in the desert closing in on the twin checkers.
Yet again, Hunter-Reay would be magic on the get-go, shooting from eighth to fifth in three corners as Dixon continued to lead with 98 laps to go. As the laps continued to dwindle, green flag pit stops began at lap 193, with just 57 circuits remaining. Among those pitting included Kanaan and Hunter-Reay, but a hard hit on the outside of turn four by oval specialist Ed Carpenter — running third at the time — drew the fifth yellow of the night, yet again pinning top contenders laps down in the process.
The caution was a benefit for the two Team Penske cars that suffered tire failures earlier in the night, as Montoya and Castroneves took wave-bys around the pace car to pick up the back end of the lead lap. As the race went back to full speed with 41 laps to go, the quest was on and the question was loud — could anyone work around Dixon for the victory?
Simon Pagenaud was the man who ultimately had the closest shot over the final run, closing to within four tenths of a second with six laps remaining, but the caution spoiled any hopes he had of getting around for the win.
Of consolation? The Frenchman takes over the points lead for the first time in his career heading to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 17.
“It was a really interesting race,” Pagenaud admitted. “I didn’t take many risks off the start … I was loose, loose, loose … for most of the first half. We struggled to understand that, but about halfway through my team made an adjustment that just got the car to wake up. After that, we just saved a bunch of fuel in traffic, but this second-place is because of my (pit) guys. They’re the ones that got me up front, really, and once you’re up there clean air here (at Phoenix) is everything, really. Super proud of the team, and it’s good news that we’re leading the points as well.”
“Short ovals are not our strong suit, so if we can be second where we aren’t so strong then it’s a really good sign for the rest of the season.”
Power, Kanaan and Graham Rahal — who started 19th and made a heroic drive through the field — rounded out the top five.
Rookie Max Chilton, making his first-ever Verizon IndyCar Series start on an oval track, finished a stellar seventh as Montoya and Hunter-Reay rallied to come home ninth and 10th, restectively.
Castroneves could only muster an 11th-place effort at the twin checkers after his early-race tire issue.
RESULTS: Verizon IndyCar Series; Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix; Phoenix International Raceway; April 2, 2016
- Scott Dixon
- Simon Pagenaud
- Will Power
- Tony Kanaan
- Graham Rahal
- Josef Newgarden
- Max Chilton
- Sebastien Bourdais
- Juan Pablo Montoya
- Ryan Hunter-Reay
- Helio Castroneves
- Charlie Kimball
- Marco Andretti
- Alexander Rossi
- Takuma Sato
- Conor Daly
- Mikhail Aleshin
- James Hinchcliffe
- Jack Hawksworth
- Luca Filippi
- Ed Carpenter
- Carlos Munoz
Lead Changes: Two between three drivers.
Lap Leaders: Castroneves (1-39); Montoya (40-95); Dixon (96-250).
Laps Led: Dixon (155); Montoya (56); Castroneves (39).
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network. Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 22-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
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