Scott Dixon began his 2013 season with a rare struggle — a 20th-place qualifying run at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
By the end of the race, Dixon had climbed his way to a fifth-place finish. And by the end of the season, he was an IndyCar series champion, again.
The 33-year-old has spent his career quietly, steadily hiding in the celebrity shadow of former teammate Dario Franchitti. With Franchitti retired, Dixon has the chance to become the face of powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing and cement his status as one of the greatest drivers in series history.
"I find he sneaks up on you," said Scott Goodyear, a former IndyCar series runnerup who is now an analyst for ABC/ESPN.
Dixon's on-track record shouldn't sneak up on anyone.
He has won three series championships (2003, 2008, 2013). He dominated the 2008 Indianapolis 500. His 33 victories are the most among active drivers and seventh in series history.
He has finished second at the Grand Prix three times, and his No. 9 Chevrolet figures to be a contender again when the green flag drops today.
"I think he's just solid … like a rock," Ganassi teammate Ryan Briscoe said. "He just gets the job done."
Dixon's success comes from a mixture of talent, dedication and stability.
He earned a win in his third CART race as a 20-year-old rookie in 2001. Since then, he has improved technically and added experience. Competitors call him a master at saving fuel.
"Scott is just relentless," said Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion. "He's a guy that goes about his business quietly, professionally. He's a guy that you always know will make your Sunday hard."
It helps that he has become a fixture in Ganassi's red cars.
No driver has ever been with the team as long as Dixon (13 years). That long partnership has formed strong bonds in the garage that pay off on the track. The team knows each other well enough that it can keep minor setbacks from becoming major problems.
"It's ridiculous," Hunter-Reay said.
Dixon and his team showed their reliability and consistency in last year's unlikely championship run. He all but counted himself out of the picture when he finished outside the top 10 in five of the first 10 races.
He fell as low as eighth in the championship hunt before winning three straight races, at Pocono and the Toronto doubleheader. Dixon finished the season with three consecutive top-fives to beat out Helio Castroneves for the series title.
"I think the comeback for us as a team was huge," Dixon said. "When it's counted, they've pulled it out or been able to stay more consistent than some of the others."
Franchitti said much of that credit belongs to Dixon.
It's easy to grow complacent after success. But Dixon and his team haven't, which is how they've finished in the top four in the points standings every year since 2006.
"He's tremendously talented, but the determination that he has is something special," said Franchitti, who retired from driving but remains an adviser at Ganassi.
"He knows how hungry he was when he was a young kid coming over from New Zealand, trying to make it all happen. Now he's got all the trappings of success, but it doesn't change his outlook."
Dixon said he has never been focused on anything besides winning. He's proud of his success, but he doesn't think about his place in history.
"I love my job. I love racing. I think that's what matters to me," Dixon said. "If you can build on those, that's fantastic. I'm not a … stats guy. I think it's something you can reflect on when you do leave the sport."
This season could be one of the most challenging of Dixon's recent career. Ganassi switched from Honda engines to Chevy, so it is adjusting to new equipment. And although Franchitti will be around, Dixon's good friend won't be in the No. 10 car to compare notes.
Franchitti and Dixon have similar driving styles, Goodyear said, but Dixon and Franchitti's replacement, Tony Kanaan, are very different. Dixon is smooth with the controls and brakes. Kanaan is harder.
That means it's tougher to compare data and setups. Goodyear said those differences might not show up until midway through the season but could have a large effect in a competitive series that featured 10 winners among 19 races last year.
Dixon said Franchitti's departure leaves a void in the series, but he's not too concerned about stepping out of his friend's shadow and into the spotlight.
"Dario will still be with the team and taking some of that limelight," Dixon said. "I'm perfectly fine with that."
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]