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Posted: Sunday August 9, 2009 10:31PM; Updated: Monday August 10, 2009 12:56PM
Bruce Martin Bruce Martin >
INSIDE RACING

Dixon is the newest "Mr. IRL"

Story Highlights

Scott Dixon earned a new moniker after taking Sunday's Honda Indy 200: Mr. IRL

After winning the 20th race of his IRL career, Dixon surpassed Sam Hornish, Jr

Does Jimmie Johnson need a road course win to cement his greatness?

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With 20 career IRL wins, Scott Dixon passed Sam Hornish, Jr. as tops on the list.
AP

STEAM CORNERS, Ohio -- Scott Dixon has earned many nicknames during his highly-successful racing career such as "The Iceman" for his cool demeanor as well as 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time IndyCar Series champion.

On Sunday, he earned a new moniker -- "Mr. IRL."

By winning Sunday's Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, Dixon claimed the 20th victory of his Indy Racing League (IRL) career and that breaks the career victory record he shared with Sam Hornish, Jr.

Before Hornish moved to NASCAR after the 2007 IndyCar Series season, he was the embodiment of what the IRL was all about. He was a home-grown American race driver who came from the small town of Defiance, Ohio, and went on to achieve greatness in the most extreme form of racing in the United States, if not the world.

When IndyCar racing needed an American hero, Hornish was just that, becoming the best driver of his generation. He was also the "Great American Hope" for that sport and endured a lengthy and divisive split before unification made IndyCar whole again in 2008.

By then, Hornish had left for NASCAR, where he struggled as a rookie in 2008 before showing flashes of promise in 2009, including last week's fourth-place finish at Pocono Raceway.

When the IRL was created in 1996, Dixon would have never fit the prototype for drivers at that time. After all, he was from Auckland, New Zealand, and came from a junior formula background of road and street course racing. The grizzled, old-timers of IndyCar racing at that time wanted the series to go back to its USAC roots, where drivers from midget, sprint and Silver Crown racing could advance to the Indianapolis 500 just like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones and the Unsers did in a bygone era.

Unfortunately, corporate America avoided the IRL like the plague and drivers such as Andy Michner, Billy Boat and Davey Hamilton struggled to get the sponsorship support needed to make that vision a reality.

The IRL developed Tony Stewart, who won the IRL title in 1997 before bolting for NASCAR after the 1998 season. Hornish arrived in 2000 as a 20-year-old for PDM Racing. The next year, he had been hired at Panther Racing and won the 2001 title as a 21-year-old and another title in 2002.

After winning a third IndyCar Series title and achieving his lifelong dream of winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2006, Hornish began to look for a new challenge and wanted to test his skills against American drivers in NASCAR Sprint Cup.

By then, the IRL had evolved into a series that included the big teams that had enjoyed success in CART. One of those teams was Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, which left CART after the 2002 season and brought over a two-car team with Dixon and Tomas Scheckter of South Africa for the 2003 season.

Dixon was shy and unassuming to those who didn't know him. But to those who got to know the Kiwi, he was refreshing for his frankness, sincerity and honesty.

When Dixon won the title in 2003, he called the cars that raced only on ovals "bleep."

But street and road course racing was added to the IndyCar schedule in 2005 and the IRL's transition of becoming just like CART was well underway.

Dixon, who had experienced two disappointing seasons after winning the title in 2003, began to return to prominence in 2006 -- the year Hornish won his third and last IndyCar championship. In 2007, Dixon lost the championship when he ran out of fuel on the last turn of the last lap of the last race of the season to Dario Franchitti.

Last year, Dixon was able to win his second IndyCar Series championship and his return to the top was complete.

Tony George may not have had a driver such as Dixon in mind when he created the Indy Racing League but Dixon has grown into the role of "Mr. IRL" and can now boast the accomplishment of being the all-time victory leader in the series and has replaced Hornish as "Mr. IRL."

"Unfortunately, Sam is not still here to defend that," Dixon said. "That's the sad side of it. It's a fantastic milestone for me and for the team. I've achieved all of my wins with Target and without them it wouldn't be possible. To finally be labeled that in this series is a big deal to me and a big deal to the team.

"It's going to be tough to hang on to that. Helio is pretty close and to keep that going I'm going to have to race for a lot more years. If I can get that up to 25, 30 or 35, I think that would be pretty cool."

At 29, Dixon is not lured by the dollars that go to NASCAR drivers. Frankly, he is not interested in that style of racing. And he has no illusions about a Formula One career.

Dixon is one of the best things IndyCar has going because this is the series that he wants to be in.

But while Dixon is No. 1 in a series that began competition in 1996, he is only 19th in all-time Indy-car open-wheel victories and has a long way to go to catch A.J. Foyt, who tops that list with 67 wins followed by Mario Andretti's 52.

Counting a victory in CART in 2000, Dixon is tied with Franchitti with 21 wins while Helio Castroneves has 22 in combined series victories.

Franchitti, who had many great battles with Hornish on the ovals before both drivers left for NASCAR after the 2007 IndyCar Series season, is able to compare both drivers and assess their strengths and weaknesses.

"Dixie, he's been on it," Franchitti said. "Today was a great performance by him. It's really, really impressive. They are very different drivers. For me, I've watched Scott get better in all the different disciplines. He can win on any type of track. And Sam is a fantastic oval driver but really struggled on the road courses. He was getting better before he left for NASCAR but he really struggled.

"I think that's the big difference between the two. They are both great drivers."

As Hornish left to add yet another American driver to NASCAR's mostly American field, the IndyCar Series should take pride in its international field of drivers that compete for a championship on short ovals, superspeedways, street courses and natural terrain road courses.

That is what makes IndyCar unique among any other motorsport in the world.

And in this unique form of racing, nobody better represents IndyCar than Dixon, the man who is proud to be known as "Mr. IRL."

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