LEXINGTON, Ohio – Scott Dixon and his Target Chip Ganassi team had planned on four pit stops.
Then Dixon changed his mind — and his and his team’s luck.
Dixon went from last in qualifying to capture his fifth win at Mid-Ohio in the last eight years, coasting in on low fuel Sunday to finally end his team’s victory drought in 2014.
“It was probably around Lap 30, we had to really go for it and switch it up,” he said about the altered game plan to go hard and then conserve fuel while playing keep-away with the lead.
The 34-year-old New Zealander, who started last in the 22-car field, also won on the twisty road course between Cleveland and Columbus in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2012.
“To come from last to even a top-10 here was going to be extremely difficult to do,” he said. “But we laid down some quick laps, passed some people and then hung on.”
Target Chip Ganassi has won the last six races at the track, breaking through this season in a familiar place.
Pole-sitter Sebastien Bourdais was a distant second, with James Hinchcliffe third, rookie Carlos Munoz fourth and favorite son Graham Rahal fifth.
“(Starting) 17th to (finishing) third sounds impressive until you talk about Scott,” Hinchcliffe joked. “He’s got to go and showboat, like he always does here.”
Dixon led a total of 45 laps, winning the strategy battle against the top contenders while capturing his 34th series win and first since Houston last October.
He beat runner-up Bourdais by 5.3864 seconds. Almost immediately after getting the checkered flag, just after going past pit row, he pulled quickly over into the grass near the first turn and pumped his fist to fans.
He was not out of gas, he said. But he could have been.
“The (low) fuel light came up with about a lap and a half to go,” he said. “If you were listening to the radio, you would have heard a lot of random chatter. We conserved for most of the last lap. The way our year has gone, it’s a wonder I didn’t run out and have to walk back.”
It was the farthest back a winner had started since Max Papis won at Laguna Seca in 2001. But Dixon has done this before. In 2001, he started 23rd at Nazareth and came all the way through the field to win.
After qualifying went poorly in the rain Saturday, Dixon said, “Not the best qualifying we’ve had this year, I can tell you that. There just wasn’t any grip to be found out there. We’ll have to come up with a great strategy tomorrow to dig us out of this hole.”
That’s exactly what they did.
Will Power, second in the drivers’ standings coming in, took over the No. 1 spot when leader Helio Castroneves had throttle problems on a pace lap. Power finished sixth while Castroneves, who would end up with the fastest lap of the day, was 19th.
Bourdais, after winning his second pole of the season, maintained the lead for most of the opening 30 laps.
But there were surprises early.
Castroneves, who started 15th, was four laps behind because of the early problems.
The race hadn’t had a single caution the last two years, but that didn’t last long. On the opening lap there was a mishap on the sharp turn called the keyhole that resulted in the noses getting knocked off the cars of Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan.
Josef Newgarden, who qualified No. 2 behind Bourdais, slotted into second spot early and stalked the leader. He pulled right behind Dixon, who took the lead on lap 68.
Newgarden fell back during a disastrous pit stop in which he drove over a hose and his crew stumbled filling the car with fuel and changing tires. He finished 12th.
Dixon grabbed the lead and didn’t let go, pushing his lead to seven seconds through 70 laps. He sat on the lead the rest of the way, going hard until that fuel light popped on.
“The fastest car won the race,” Bourdais said. “I was hoping he wouldn’t make the fuel (last). But it was pretty clear when he stopped the last time that he would do it.”
Dixon thanked the makers of his Chevrolet for something rarely mentioned in race cars.
“We got fantastic fuel mileage out there,” he said, laughing.