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Dixon wins at Phoenix to tie Al Unser for fourth on all-time list

AVONDALE, Ariz. — In the heat of the desert, the “Ice Man” lived up to his nickname by remaining cool all the way to Victory Lane. In the process, he attached his name to another Indy car legend.

Reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon won the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix in the series’ return to Phoenix International Raceway following an 11-year absence. It is the 39th career win for the New Zealander, tying him with four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser for fourth on the all-time Indy car victories list.

It also gives Dixon, a four-time series champ, a race win in 12 consecutive seasons to set a record all his own. The 35-year-old was previously tied with wins in 11 straight seasons with Bobby Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi and Helio Castroneves.

“It’s mind-boggling, for sure,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. “For me, I feel very privileged to be racing, being an Indy car driver, being part of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and then being part of Team Target.

“All my wins except for one have been with this team. I hope we can continue to build on it and the numbers are great. It sounds a bit strange when you hear the names that we’re amongst them fighting on the wins list.”

Dixon was one of three race leaders in the 250-lap event, pacing the field for the final 155 laps. The race ended under caution after rookie Alexander Rossi made contact with the wall two laps from the finish.

It was the first career win at PIR for Dixon and the first for the Ganassi team at PIR in any race series. It was also Ganassi’s 101st Indy car win.

“It was tough, definitely one of the toughest races on these short ovals,” Dixon said. “The car was super-fast. I think we had the best car out there on strategies and pit stops.”

Simon Pagenaud, in the No, 22 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet, finished second for the second consecutive race and took the lead in the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings for the first time in his career. Pagenaud has 83 points and leads Dixon by four.

“That’s good news,” Pagenaud said. “That’s exactly what we want to do. This is not our strong suit, short ovals, but if we can be strong, that’s a good sign.”

Will Power, who missed the season opener three weeks ago at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with an inner ear infection, finished third in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

“I’m really happy to finish third. Missing the first race and dealing with a few health issues, I was just happy to complete the race in a great position,” Power said. “I got more energy as I went along.”

Tony Kanaan finished fourth in the No. 10 GE LED Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Graham Rahal was the top-finishing Honda driver, placing fifth in the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

“It was tough to pass,” Rahal said. “I felt like I had a really good race car. Unfortunately, our competition had about a 5 mph advantage on us, I feel like. I was just doing everything I could to get it.”

The highest-finishing rookie was Max Chilton, who was seventh in his first Verizon IndyCar Series race on an oval in the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

“Chip Ganassi gave me a fantastic car,” Chilton said. “Obviously, Scott won this event, TK (Kanaan) flew past me with about 10-15 (laps) to go, so maybe I didn’t have necessarily the fastest car, but I think as a team we had a very, very strong car.”

Team Penske pilots Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya set the pace early, but both had to pit from the lead with flat right-front tires. Castroneves led the first 39 laps from the pole in the No. 3 REV Group Chevrolet and Montoya, who won the St. Pete season opener, led the next 56 laps in the No. 2 Verizon Chevy.

NFL superstar Fitzgerald feels range of emotions in INDYCAR two-seater

Arizona Cardinals superstar wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has about seen it all in the sporting world – he thought. Then he strapped in behind legendary Mario Andretti in the INDYCAR Experience two-seat Indy car for a speed ride around Phoenix International Raceway before the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.

Fitzgerald experienced all the emotions: thrill, awe and, he admitted, a good amount of fear.

“It was unbelievable,” the 32-year-old nine-time Pro Bowl selection said with an ear-to-ear grin. “I was nervous going into that first turn, just how fast he was coming out here. It was exhilarating, it really was. All the turns are scary. I felt like I wanted to hit the brakes, he was going to the wall a little bit too fast. It was a great experience, I had a wonderful time. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”

Fitzgerald has played in a Super Bowl, been the Pro Bowl MVP and is fifth all time in NFL receiving yards, but nothing on the gridiron compared what he experienced traveling around PIR’s 1.022-mile oval at speeds exceeding 160 mph.

“This is much more of a rush (than being on the football field). I’m tired after just two laps!” he said.

It also reinforced Fitzgerald’s appreciation for the true athleticism of Verizon IndyCar Series drivers.

“I’ve always had great appreciation for them and what they are able to do out here on this track,” he said. “To be able to get in that car and go at those speeds, that’s exhilarating. It’s unbelievable how they’re able to control those vehicles at these speeds with so many cars so close to them.”

Rahal makes early Phoenix podium appearance

Graham Rahal raced for the first time at Phoenix International Raceway in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, but he was already on the podium in the past.

At age 3, Graham joined father Bobby atop the PIR podium after his dad won the race almost exactly 24 years ago, on April 5, 1992. It was the first year of team ownership for Bobby, winner of the 1986 Indianapolis 500, and he went on to win the CART championship for Rahal Hogan Racing.

Joining the Rahals on the PIR podium that year was an elite group. The second-place finisher was Eddie Cheever Jr., winner of the 1998 Indy 500, and the third-place finisher was Emerson Fittipaldi, winner of the Indy 500 in both 1989 and 1993.

Foyt team makes supreme effort to repair Sato’s car

Three Verizon IndyCar Series entries crashed in practice or qualifying April 1 for the 250-lap race. Two – those driven by James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz – were repaired in time to turn laps in the April 1 evening practice. Meanwhile, the ABC Supply/AJ Foyt Racing crew was feverishly working in its garage to get Takuma Sato’s No. 14 Honda in running condition.

The effort continued into race day. The team was granted a few on-track minutes by INDYCAR before the race to run some laps to make sure driver and machine were ready to race.

Asked how much was damaged in the Turn 1 crash less than 10 minutes into the first practice session, team president Larry Foyt said, “Pretty much everything but the tub, really.

“The whole back of the car, pretty much every corner, engine, gearbox. It was about as complete as you can do without totally writing one off. It was a lot of work.

“We wrecked early, about 10 a.m. yesterday and they worked straight through until 10 p.m.and came back in this morning at 8 or 9. It was a lot of work, but it was our best option because our speedway car is going to Indy to test (on April 6). It was what we were faced with and easier than going to a backup car.”

Foyt praised the dedicated effort of his crew.

“The guys did a great job getting it all together,” he said, “and thanks to INDYCAR for letting us shake it down to make sure it was safe and that Takuma was OK to drive the race.”

Sato drove to a 15th-place finish in the race.

Desert Diamond Casinos enjoys title sponsorship of Phoenix Grand Prix

A staple of the gaming industry for more than three decades in Arizona, Desert Diamond Casinos made its first venture into motorsports with sponsorship of the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix this year.

The West Valley location in suburban Phoenix is the fourth for the tribal group. The race sponsorship is an effort to become more involved in the community and Desert Diamond representatives are pleased with the early results.

“It’s a part of our business culture to become part of the community, to be rooted in what the community wants, what the community supports,” said Treena Parvello, director of public relations and communications, Desert Diamond Casinos. “This was a perfect partnership for us. We were looking for opportunities. INDYCAR was coming back (to PIR), so it was a perfect partnership for us to join.

“Everyone here has been so friendly and so accommodating. We’re really pleased with the sponsorship.”