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Out of the shadows -- Dixon set for Indy challenge

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For more on sports, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio

Veteran driver embraces 'peace-of-mind' approach

Sunday, May 25, 2014 - 12:01 am

INDIANAPOLIS -- Scott Dixon is a winner. Only a fool would forget that. No active IndyCar driver has won as much.

He is a former Indy 500 champ. That is significant. Only 68 drivers have that distinction.

And yet …

Dixon's only Indianapolis Motor Speedway victory came in 2008, back when tweeting was new and Will Power reflected mental toughness rather than the name of the current IndyCar series leader.

“It has been forever,” he says. “It's time to regroup and go again.”

Dixon has won 33 Indy car races, seventh all time. He's three wins away from fourth. The only drivers ahead of him have the last names of Andretti, Foyt and Unser.

Beyond that, he has won 20 poles with 108 top-five finishes in 220 starts. He's won three IndyCar Series titles, in 2003, 08 and last year, when he won four races.

The 33-year-old Dixon has been with Ganassi racing for 13 years, and might race for at least another decade. On Friday he won his second Pit Stop Challenge in the last three years.

And yet …

The spotlight shines on others. Dixon does not thrive on the brightness of his smile (can you say Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti?) or the force of his personality (consider defending Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan). Dixon is as reliable as the rising son, as hard working as an engine piston, a man comfortable in the shadows until achievement blasts them away again.

“I like to live simply,” he says, simply. “I've never had any problem not having the spotlight on me.”

And yet …

Where is the speed? That is a big question this month. Dixon projects as a favorite for today's Indy 500, but the speed has been missing for him and for the other three Target Chip Ganassi Racing cars.

Yes, Friday was encouraging, when during a final practice session Dixon hit 227.773 mph, second fastest behind Kanaan's 227.838. Still, Dixon will start 11th, in the middle of row 4. He expected better.

No matter now. Today is when it counts, and the fact Dixon is a former winner of the greatest spectacle in racing gives him an edge.

“It means a lot,” the New Zealand native says. “ 'Relaxed' is maybe not the right word, but peace of mind. It's nice to know you have won this race. It makes you feel good. It doesn't change how you approach things.”

The approach is crucial in this era of pass-often racing, when lead changes are as frequent as a Shakira hip move. Last year's race featured 68 lead changes before Kanaan won.

Dixon understands that as well as any driver in the 33-car field. He ranks fifth in the driver standings. He has a third, a fourth, a fifth and a 12th in the season's first four races. He's well versed in the nuances needed to win in Indianapolis.

“It's track position for sure,” Dixon says. “You can't just lay back. You'll find you need to maintain being in the top six or eight. Then it's all about strategy. What do you need to do about fuel mileage? Who are your strongest competitors? You're trying to figure out what your car needs, whether you can trim out or need more down force?

“If you figure out that stuff too late, you're going to get waxed.”

Today's race won't lack for contenders with names such as Marco Andretti, Castroneves, pole winner Ed Carpenter, Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya and more.

“You have a good six to eight cars with the general speed and consistency to win it,” Dixon says. “And then, with the way the race is here and how it can change, and the strategies, and different things, it opens it up for six or more cars as well. On some of the big teams, their third or fourth cars have the equipment to do it.”

As he talks, mentioning everyone but himself, you can almost see the shadows closing around him.

Don't be fooled.