When Scott Dixon stood next to the Astor Cup on a stage in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, he was still a bit surprised to be so close to IndyCar's championship trophy heading into the season finale.
Just two weeks ago, Dixon needed an enormous amount of help to take control of the overall IndyCar race. Helio Castroneves gave it to him with a broken gearbox during a wild doubleheader in Houston, allowing Dixon to head for California with his third series title in sight.
"It's been such an up-and-down season for us that it's kind of hard to believe we're here," said Dixon, the series champion in 2003 and 2008. "We started so poorly, but we managed to find some redemption at midseason and got back in the hunt. And then Houston happened, and now we're here. It's been a wild ride."
Indeed, Dixon hadn't been on top of the overall standings all season long until he left Houston with the lead. The last time Dixon led the championship was back in 2009, with one race to go — and Dario Franchitti sped past him to claim the title.
That's why Dixon isn't cocky about his chances in IndyCar's season finale at Fontana on Saturday night.
"It's very easy to jinx yourself," Dixon said. "I think maybe you start thinking it's a given, and you get too complacent. Everybody knows it's not over. If we're leading at the end of this race, then job accomplished, but we could still very well lose it."
The New Zealander realizes he only needs a fifth-place finish to stay ahead of Castroneves for the overall title, but he won't change tactics just to stay safe. He expects a dynamic race on the long oval east of Los Angeles — but hopefully without the pyrotechnics of the Houston doubleheader, which ended with teammate Franchitti in a hospital with two broken vertebrae, a broken ankle and a concussion.
Castroneves had led the overall standings for 14 of the 18 races this season, and the Brazilian had a 49-point lead in the overall standings heading to Houston. But mechanical failures in both races left him 25 points behind Dixon, who won the first race of the doubleheader and finished second in the second race.
Despite the horrific results in Houston, Castroneves hasn't lost his usual chipper demeanor — or given up hope for a dramatic comeback. He's the only racer who could mathematically catch Dixon for the title.
"The reason I'm not mad is because it's not over," Castroneves said. "We have a chance. Some things happened in Houston that you'd never expect. Breaking the gearbox? No way to predict something like that could happen."
Roger Penske said his team "fell on our face" in Houston, a failure that could leave Penske just short of the title for the sixth time since 2006.
"In our case, with the scenario, it's pretty simple," Penske Racing President Tim Cindric said. "Winning is really the only thing at the end of the day, and then you still have to hope."
Dixon was among the first people to realize Castroneves' championship hopes were in trouble during that second race in Houston: Oil from Castroneves' gearbox doused Dixon's car from the second or third lap onward, and Dixon screamed about it into his radio.
Even when Castroneves was forced to stop, Dixon got no enjoyment from Castroneves' woes.
"You're thinking, 'If it's happening to him, it could very well happen to us as well,'" Dixon said, realizing Castroneves' problems probably were caused by contact with a bump on Turn 1 in Houston. "You've had so many situations where you think it's great, and then five laps later, you have a problem yourself. It's very easy to get ahead of yourself and lose focus."
Both Castroneves and Dixon are changing engines for the Fontana race, a common tactic on an oval track that makes the resulting speed more important than the 10-spot penalty on the starting grid for making a switch. Castroneves had easily the fastest race car at the Fontana test last month, and he's counting on that speed to give him a shot at the title.
Dixon also will have a new teammate as he goes for the Cup: Alex Tagliani is the temporary replacement for Franchitti with Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
"It's going to come down to the last lap, the last corner, probably," Dixon said. "We're going to have to dig deep. I'm just excited to be a part of it."