Dixon notably struggled in qualifying on road courses through most of last season, needing to use all of his race smarts to keep up an astonishing record of 13 top-five finishes. However, in the Sonoma season finale, the Chip Ganassi Racing legend was able to keep title rival Alexander Rossi at arm’s length by qualifying and finishing second and clinching his fifth series title.
This, Dixon has confirmed, was due to a combination of a sudden divergence in setup by race engineer Chris Simmons combined with a significant adaptation in driving style to best suit the car’s new handling traits. The step up in performance, he confirmed in a post-season test at Barber Motorsports Park in October.
“It worked for me [at the test] in Alabama and kind of worked at Sonoma,” he said. “That track had been a thorn in our side for many years.
“Going from Portland, with a set-up direction that we had been running for probably the last 10 or 12 years – obviously with lots of different changes but the basic setup pretty similar – and moving to something totally different a week later and rolling off the truck and being in the top three all weekend in any given session. That was nice and comfortable to drive and not as hard to put a lap together, which was the big difference.
“It may apply to some places and maybe not to some others, but yeah, I think when you look back at the holes that we had, what was normally a very strong racecar on road courses was pretty horrendous, especially in qualifying. So there was a big direction that we needed to chase and we’re definitely onto something different.
“It seemed to be working at Barber and Sonoma at the end of the year. We definitely had a breakthrough but we’ll keep working at it.”
Asked if this was proof that even after 18 seasons with Ganassi, he and the team were still learning and adapting, Dixon responded: “Every day you’re learning, man. Every day at the track there’s something new, whether it’s the basics like ambient temperature, or tires, the track, engine, you constantly have to evolve.
“Last year with a new aerokit there was a big transition, especially when we had been going more downforce, more downforce, more downforce, to a big dropoff, that was a major variation from what we’d had.
“So there’s always room for improvement; it’s a constant evolution and if you think you know everything, it’s probably time to give up!”