Which Driver Will be Feeling More Pressure?

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No one is complaining, but the IndyCar season is quickly approaching – faster than most of us realize. It’s hard to get used to the idea of the season starting in February, but the opening practice for the season-opener at St. Petersburg is two weeks from today. Maybe it’s time to start looking ahead to the season that is now just in front of us.

With this week’s Super Bowl being totally dissected for the past two weeks, I keep hearing the pundits ask “What QB is will be feeling more pressure?” I think it is clearly Matthew Stafford, for a variety of reasons we won’t go into here. This is, after all, a site that focuses on IndyCar – not football.

I think we could apply that question to several IndyCar drivers. In fact, I may take a look at a few drivers in the next couple of weeks as we lead into the season-opener. But today, I want to start off with the defending series champion, Alex Palou and look within his own team – Chip Ganassi Racing.

Who is under the most pressure on this team – Alex Palou or Scott Dixon?

I think that both drivers are under a tremendous amount of pressure, but for totally different reasons. Alex Palou has to silence his doubters, and I am admittedly one of them. I am still not sold on Palou. Yes, he had an excellent season last year; but it pretty much came out of nowhere. I don’t think I am alone in saying that I never paid that much attention to Palou in his rookie season of 2020, when he was driving for Dale Coyne. He had three Top-Ten finishes including a podium (third) at Road America. But he also had six finishes of fifteenth or lower, in a fourteen race season.

I would say that anyone who says they picked Alex Palou to win the championship after his rookie season, is either lying or they should head for a new career in Vegas. I thought he would possibly have a solid season at Ganassi, but not for a minute did I think he would win the championship.

So the question is…can he do it again. I’m not saying Palou’s championship was a fluke. Race wins can be a fluke, but not an entire season. I think Palou is a very talented driver, but was he the best driver in the field last year? No. I just think he had the least amount of bad luck among the good drivers. But I do think the pressure is on Palou this season, not necessarily to win the championship – but to at least be in the thick of things all season long. If Palou falls out of contention early and never recovers, the naysayers will start coming out of the woodwork.

Scott Dixon hasn’t had any external pressure on him since heading into the 2006 season. He won his first IndyCar championship in 2003, but followed that up with finishing tenth in 2004 and thirteenth in 2005. Granted, he was saddled with the underwhelming Toyota engine and the non-desired Panoz chassis – but Chip Ganassi is not one to accept excuses. He expects results. I’m not sure if Scott Dixon was ever in danger of losing his ride in the No. 9 car, but rebounding with a fourth-place finish in 2006 in an equal all-Honda field didn’t hurt his case. In 2007, Dixon finished second and in 2008, he won the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar championship. The rest is history.

But Scott Dixon will be forty-two in July. He is less than two years removed from winning his sixth IndyCar title, but last year was a disappointment. He started the season strong, with a third at Barber and a fifth at St. Petersburg. He won the first race of the Texas double-header and finished fourth in the second race. Early on, it appeared that another typical Scott Dixon run to the championship was shaping up.

A forgettable ninth in the GMR Grand Prix at IMS was no real cause for concern, but an ill-timed caution in the Indianapolis 500 caused him to run out of fuel and coast into the pits. He ended up finishing seventeenth, but double-points in the Indianapolis 500 meant a double-whammy in points. Finishing eighth and seventh in the double-header at Detroit, did little to help Dixon’s cause. But in the next three races at Road America, Mid-Ohio and Nashville; Dixon helped his chances in the championship by finishing fourth, fourth and second.

The last five races were a mixed bag for Dixon, as he closed the season out with two podiums, but also finishes of seventeenth, nineteenth and thirteenth. It was unusual to see Scott Dixon fade in the last third of the season – a time of year that is usually his strongest.

I don’t think Scott Dixon is in danger of losing his job at the end of the season – I don’t think, but you never know with Chip Ganassi. But I do think Dixon could be racing against his own legacy. If he was thirty-one, you would just chalk last season up to just one of those years where things went against him at the end of the season. But at forty-one, Scott Dixon is racing against his own legacy.

Heading into the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series season, I have my own questions and I’m sure everyone else does too. Was Dixon’s fade at the end of last season a fluke, or was it an early sign of what we can expect going forward? Has Father Time finally caught up with Scott Dixon? Is Scott Dixon no longer the Number One driver at Chip Ganassi Racing? Based on the number of wins in 2021, is Scott Dixon not even the Number Two driver at Chip Ganassi Racing?

A year ago, none of these questions seemed remotely possible. But given Dixon’s age, his uncharacteristic late-season fade, the championship season that Palou put together and the solid season for Marcus Ericsson – all bets are off.

Personally, I think Dixon’s fade was mostly a fluke. I don’t think Dixon suddenly forgot how to drive in mid-August, after such a strong start last spring. Now I do think it’s possible that the team started focusing on Palou winning the championship, rather than trying to make Dixon more competitive. Remember, this was not a two-man inter-team battle. Josef Newgarden and Pato O’Ward were in contention to win the championship as well. They rightly figured that it’s better for the team to have one driver win the championship, than to have their drivers finish second and third.

I suspect that Scott Dixon will be just as competitive in 2022 as he has been for the past five years. A decline that sharp in midseason is more due to circumstances than a sudden lack of ability. If Dixon struggles through 2022 with no wins and poor finishes, he may decided that it may be time to acknowledge the dreaded changing of the guard. Besides, with all the championships that Scott Dixon has won – he has never won two in a row. He always falls off a little bit the season after winning the title. That should make other drivers – especially his own Ganassi teammates – on notice in 2022.

But getting back to the original question of which driver will be feeling more pressure – I’d say it is Scott Dixon. Like Joe Burrow of the Bengals, Alex Palou has a lot more time on his side. Your thoughts?

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Which Driver Will be Feeling More Pressure?”

  1. I like Palou and feel he should be getting more recognition than he does and certainty should be promoted by the Series. He face a ton of pressure last year lining up against Dixon every weekend. More than held his own. Faced pressure down the stretch and delivered . But of the young guns bother Herta and O’Ward receive much more attention. They appear to be more aggressive and flamboyant in driving style and are certainly very good. Palio’s style is to protect the car, finish strong and strike when needed. Just different style I think .

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Palou handled some significant pressure quite well last year, so whatever pressure he is feeling this year I would be surprised if he couldn’t handle it. Dixon’s record speaks for itself, though his road to a championship is looking increasingly like it will have to come from stringing together mistake-free races rather than from the raw speed that Herta, O’Ward, Newgarden, and Palou showed last year.

    The driver I think who will be feeling the most pressure to perform this year will be Felix Rosenqvist.

  3. James Exline Says:

    One other comment . Palou qualified 6th and came within a half second of the IMS Maestro which would have placed his face on the Borg Warner at the 500. That alone would have changed the conversation. As to Dixon feeling pressure, I don’t think so.

    • Tom from Lake Forest Says:

      You’ve got to believe that the pressure felt by a young up-and-comer like Palou is qualitatively different from that felt by a future hall-of-famer like Dixon. Dixon has nothing to prove yet must feel the pressure of an aging athlete fighting against time. Palou, on the other hand, still has much to prove (as described by George). As AJ would say, old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill – but at this stage, Dixie brings age and skill. My money’s on Dixon.

  4. James T Suel Says:

    While I like Palou, and think he had a great season, iam not a fan. Dixon is not thru by any means, but at his age he is on the back side of his career. I think Jofes Newgarden will be a 3 time champion at the end of 22. I believe he is the most complete driver in Indycar.

  5. I still think that Palou is the real deal and that Dixon is going to once again be a favored contender. With that point made, let’s not forget that racing on this level is a ‘team’ sport so that fade by Dixon last year wasn’t all on him.

  6. in Super Bowl betting terms: “it’s a push”.

  7. My feeling is that Palou is the real deal and may well repeat his 2021 championship win if he has the car. I think Dixon is under lots of pressure as he cannot get beaten again by his teammate. I feel that Grosjean, Herta and maybe O’Ward will bring the pressure to Palou and hopefully Rosenquist feels more comfortable in his car this year. Oh and let’s not forget Newgarden.

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