IndyCar: Why Scott Dixon should not be the 2021 title favorite

Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon enters the 2021 season as the presumptive favorite, but should that really be the case?

Following another offseason extended by coronavirus pandemic-related restrictions, the 17-race 2021 IndyCar season is scheduled to get underway at Barber Motorsports Park this weekend, with practice commencing on Saturday, April 17 before qualifying later in the day and then race, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Presented by AmFirst, on Sunday, April 18.

For the sixth time in his career, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon enters the season as the reigning series champion, having led the championship standings after each and every race on the 14-race 2020 schedule to become the first driver to sit no lower than first place in points since 2001.

Betting against the 40-year-old New Zealander has become almost like betting against Tom Brady. As much as fans want the “youth movement” to truly take over, the quadragenarians who have been around for decades seem to return to their top form and put the kids back in their place when it matters most, but when you least expect it.

Just see the 2020 season as an example — and I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that both secured their most recent trophies in the St. Petersburg/Tampa, Florida area.

However, there are quite a few reasons why Dixon should not be considered this year’s favorite.

As accomplished as Dixon is, sitting second to A.J. Foyt on the championships list and third to Foyt and Mario Andretti on the all-time wins list, he has never managed to win back-to-back titles. As a reigning champion, his average finish is fifth place in the championship standings.

Even Tom Brady hasn’t won back-to-back Super Bowls since 2003-2004, and he’s only done it once. In fact, the current stint for Dixon is only the second time that he has actually won two titles in three years (yes, I know; “only”, as if other drivers do it so very often).

Well, Josef Newgarden did just do it as well. But it’s still incredibly rare.

Even then, it goes beyond past trends. Each season is its own individual season, after all. Winning a title one year doesn’t automatically disqualify Dixon from winning it the next, even if he is 0 for 5 in terms of defending his crowns.

But after his fourth and final win of the 2020 season at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in what was the 14-race season’s eighth race, Dixon went cold, and not just by his standards.

By this point, the driver known for closing seasons strong had a 117-point lead over Newgarden in the championship standings, thanks in large part to his three-race winning streak to start the season. It was, for all intents and purposes, over.

But it wasn’t. In each of the season’s final six races, Newgarden closed the gap, despite the fact that Dixon finished in the top 10 in each race, and he ended up taking over more than 100 points out of Dixon’s lead before ultimately falling short by just 16 points.

Since when does Dixon finish behind anybody in six straight races??

It wasn’t enough to win the title, but it was absolutely enough to ring alarm bells for the #9 team entering the 2021 season. Dixon’s unforced error at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where he is a six-time winner, was perhaps most alarming.

Dixon finished on the podium just once in the season’s final six races, and that was in a chaotic season finale on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, where he really wasn’t much of a factor but benefitted from a wide range of incidents to finish in third place.

At one point, he went on a streak of three consecutive races without a top eight finish. He hadn’t failed to finish in the top eight in three straight events since May 2014.

And let’s also not ignore the fact that despite Newgarden’s hot streak to end the year, including three wins and no finishes lower than eighth place in the final six races, he wasn’t the only driver to gain ground on Dixon. He was simply the only driver still close enough for it to matter.

In the final six races of the season, Dixon only managed to tie for sixth place in points. Newgarden, Will Power, Colton Herta, Alexander Rossi and Pato O’Ward completed the top five, with Graham Rahal tying Dixon for sixth.

And those are all drivers who could and should pose legitimate threats to him in 2021, not just some backmarkers who happened to get hot for a few races.

Dixon’s three-race winning streak to start the season effectively carried him to the point where he was barely able to pull off his sixth championship.

But even that fact in itself may be a cause for concern, simply because it’s not what we’re used to seeing.

Dixon isn’t known for starting out seasons hot. He is known for turning it on toward the middle of the year and riding that momentum to championships.

In 2013, he didn’t win until the season’s 11th race. In 2015, he didn’t finish in the top 10 until the season’s third race. In 2018, he didn’t finish on the podium until the season’s fifth race, and he didn’t win until the seventh.

He won all three championships.

From 2003, when he won his first title, to 2019 (51-race sample size), he only won a combined five races during any three-race stretch to start the year.

Does anybody really expect him to go three for three again to start 2021 like he managed to do in 2020?

And as we delved into above, he almost ended up not winning the championship anyway, as he was anything but hot to close out the year.

That will absolutely need to change if he is to win his seventh championship in 2021.

Will Scott Dixon become the second seven-time champion in IndyCar history this season, tying A.J. Foyt? Tune in to NBC this Sunday, April 18 at 3:00 p.m. ET for the live broadcast of the 2021 season-opening Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Presented by AmFirst from Barber Motorsports Park.