Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon says that running a three-stop strategy on a day when others made five stops wasn’t guaranteed to work, and that he himself had doubts he could make it work.
The six-time champion, who also won the previous round by taking a brave fuel gamble, finished 22s ahead of his nearest opponent, having lapped all but two cars.
Dixon said that the hard part came after the yellow flag caused by teammate Takuma Sato striking the wall and needing rescuing.
“There was definitely some tense moments,” said Dixon, who is now the only driver with a mathematical chance of beating teammate Alex Palou to the 2023 championship. “I think probably the hardest part was the restart where we were leading, having to get a pretty high fuel number. We weren’t getting it. We were a way’s off.
“I knew we could kind of stress that second-through-fifth pack, get them into a pretty vulnerable situation. I knew once we caught the backmarkers we’d be able to save and get beyond the fuel mileage that we needed to. It actually worked out perfectly. We were able to go further and beyond where we needed to.
“Huge testament obviously to Honda. I know there’s a lot of other Hondas out there, but to get the car in the zone, obviously the pace was still good, we could maintain almost a flat-out pace, but get almost, I don’t know, one mpg higher than you would regularly. It was pretty special.
“Obviously a team effort. There were definitely times, especially when we got to the red [Firestone alternate] tire as well, I [didn’t think it was] going to last. We kind of got stuck with a couple backmarkers there and lost touch with the No. 28 car [Romain Grosjean, attempting a similar strategy] at that point. [I] was feeling a little bit miserable.
“We were still the only ones that were going to the windows that we needed to. Luckily that caution helped us a little bit. It probably didn’t really matter. I don’t think it mattered if we had that or not. I think the race would have continued on fine otherwise anyway.”
Dixon made Firestone’s experimental soft compound last 60 laps in his second stint, enabling him to take advantage of his legendary ability to save fuel and go quick. However, he admitted he would like Firestone to continue running two compounds at an oval but to make them more radically different.
“The tire was kind of interesting,” he said. “It actually had a good amount of deg. I think for next year…you’d almost want to double that deg… I know Firestone doesn’t want to do it because that’s the product they produce — they produce very good tires — but I think for fall-off like we see at Iowa where you go from an 18s lap all the way to 22s, 23s, you have good cars coming and going, people able to make changes throughout the race. I think that’s what they need to bring back here, a little bit more aggressive for next time.
“Ultimately it worked out. It was a tough tire to manage. Probably 15, 20 laps into my stint, I thought we were going to have to bail. We actually saw the No. 12 car [Will Power] bail off it very quickly. There were a few others you could see were really struggling with it and ultimately had to bail, as well.
“You really had to manage it, which is nice to have another kind of dimension to the race, something you really had to kind of look out for. Yeah, I think they could be more aggressive next year.”
Saturday’s terrible weather that precluded all but 70 minutes of practice time before qualifying on Sunday morning, had also caused some trepidation in Dixon’s camp.
“I think the biggest thing was going into the race with an unknown,” he said. “I think it was our second full stint we went to the alternate tire. I probably would have chose to go maybe later with that just so we could see what deg other people had. Maybe that would have altered our decision, too, not playing it out, running that tire all the way through.”
“To have the possibility, as we saw this weekend, to bring an alternate to a short track oval, played out well to start with. As I said earlier, I think they can definitely get more aggressive, which will spice it up next year.”
Dixon paid tribute to those on the pitwall in standing their ground when he started to question their decisions on strategy.
“The thing for us is that we could just maintain the pace with everybody in the group, go 10 laps longer. Once we saw everyone was peeling off, even teammates… I know the No. 8 car [teammate Marcus Ericsson] went aggressive and did the undercut. It played out pretty well for them because they gained maybe five or six spots. At some point you’re going to have to pay for that.
“There were probably a couple of points where I was almost arguing a little bit to bail off what we were doing. Good job by Mike [Hull] and Chip [Ganassi], everybody on the No. 9 car stand, [Chris] Simmons as well, to sticking to their guns on the strategy side. It worked.”