- John Schwarb
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SPARTA, Ky. -- Scott Dixon was not as consistently fast as the lead team, ran out front for only four laps under caution and fell short of the winner at the finish line by more than 1.7 seconds.
Yet three more races like Saturday's at Kentucky Speedway could be good enough for his second IndyCar Series title.
Dixon, of Target/Ganassi Racing, finished second to Tony Kanaan at the Meijer Indy 300 in a nearly anonymous performance but one that brought him to the doorstep of points leader Dario Franchitti. Dixon started the day 24 points behind the Andretti Green Racing driver, but with Franchitti running eighth, Dixon was able to chop off two-thirds of that deficit.
When the series resumes on Aug. 26 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., in the Motorola Indy 300 (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET) for its three-races-in-three-weeks sprint to the finish, Dixon will be eight points out of the lead.
And perhaps also the man to beat, even if the standings say otherwise.
Saturday night's race started out as an AGR show, with Kanaan and Franchitti holding down the first two spots for all but 14 of the first 128 laps on the 1.5-mile oval. Dixon ran second briefly but was mostly third or fourth, finding his Dallara-Honda was not as strong at Kentucky as it had been two weeks prior in a test session.
"We seemed to be a mile an hour clear of definitely the AGR cars that were testing at the same time," Dixon said. "Then when we came back, we seemed to be a mile an hour slower than them, so it seemed quite mysterious."
By the end of the Meijer Indy 300, the mystery jumped back over to the AGR side. Kanaan won in convincing fashion, leading 131 laps including the final 10 after blowing by Vision Racing's A.J. Foyt IV. But Franchitti was a mess, first in breaking his front wing on Lap 178 after veering into the grass at the pit road entry while trying to avoid teammate Danica Patrick, a mistake that dropped him back to eighth, where he ultimately finished.
But the more spectacular Franchitti gaffe came seconds after the checkered flag, when he remained flat on the gas while Kosuke Matsuura slowed, having failed to realize the race was over until he was in mid-hydroplane spin. Franchitti emerged unhurt but was clearly disgusted postrace if not rattled after his second air ride in as many weeks, one of which was not his fault. But Saturday's clearly was.
"To be honest, I think it was Dario's sort of day to lose a lot of points, and they definitely messed up pretty big," Dixon said.
It's anyone's guess if Franchitti is cracking under the pressure of being just weeks away from a first IndyCar title, but it's clear Dixon is thriving as the man with the best chance to run him down. Throw out the Michigan race, when Franchitti's flying car landed on Dixon's, and the 27-year-old New Zealand native has been nearly perfect for over a month, having finished second at Richmond and Kentucky while filling the weeks in between with wins at Watkins Glen, Nashville and Mid-Ohio.
Only at Nashville was he dominant, leading 105 laps. At Watkins Glen he followed polesitter Helio Castroneves until the Team Penske driver crashed, then took control, while at Mid-Ohio he led for a stint midway through the road course event but inherited the lead when Franchitti stopped for fuel with nine laps to go.
It has been more a season of opportunity, with Dixon finishing first or second eight times and leading at least one lap in a series-high 10 of 14 races. But he has only led 235 laps in all, fourth-best among all drivers.
We definitely don't need [Kanaan] winning anymore, so we've definitely got to put that to a stop. For us, we've got to try to go out there and win races, and if we can't win, we've got to try to finish second, and so on.
Kentucky was not a day for much leading. He only paced the race from Laps 129-132 under caution. When racing resumed after the debris caution, Kanaan resumed his form and passed Dixon. But with an eye on points, Dixon didn't give up anything more than that.
"Today, yeah, it was just one of those races where we didn't really have the speed. We just had to sort of try and hook on," Dixon said after the race. "You know, luckily enough, the guys were fantastic in the pits. We jumped the two leaders towards the end of the race. TK got by on the restart, we just really didn't have enough I think for the 11 car all day."
Kanaan, in winning his second consecutive start and series-high fourth of the season, may have the best car right now, and he's heading to Infineon, where he won the series' debut event on the road course in 2005. But at 52 points back of Franchitti and 44 behind Dixon, it may take multiple wins to leapfrog to the front.
Dixon will have a say in that, especially at Infineon and on the street circuit of Detroit's Belle Isle. With the road course wins in recent weeks and a second-place on the streets of St. Petersburg in April, no one has been better on the winding routes.
"We definitely don't need [Kanaan] winning anymore, so we've definitely got to put that to a stop," Dixon said. "For us, we've got to try to go out there and win races, and if we can't win, we've got to try to finish second, and so on. That's the biggest way we can try and gain points."
Dixon knows there's nothing wrong with runner-up days late in the season; his 2003 title season closed with three straight seconds. That may do the job again against a chaser in Kanaan, who will have to continue to drive flawlessly, and a leader in Franchitti, who all of a sudden is having a hard time keeping four wheels on the ground.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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