By Jenna Fryer ,AP
FONTANA, California — New Zealand driver Scott Dixon has won the IndyCar championship, using a fifth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway to deny Helio Castroneves his first title.
Will Power of Australia won Saturday’s season finale — a year after he crashed in this race to blow his own title chances and salvage the night for Penske Racing.
The big prize went to Dixon, who won his third series title and gave Target Chip Ganassi its 10th championship since 1990. He was the final car on the lead lap, and beat Helio Castroneves by 27 points for the title.
It wasn’t incident-free as Dixon nearly overheated late in the race.
“We were freaking out,” admitted team manager Mike Hull.
Penske has been denied in the season finale six times since Sam Hornish won the organization’s last IndyCar championship in 2006.
This one slipped away in spectacular fashion as Castroneves led the points after 14 races this season and took a 49-point lead over Dixon into the Houston doubleheader two weeks ago. But a gearbox issue in the first race, which Dixon won, saw his lead sliced to just eight points.
Then in the second race, Castroneves drove over a bump in the track to cause a catastrophic failure to his gearbox. Dixon finished second and left Houston with a 25-point lead.
It backed Castroneves into a position of almost certainly needing to win Saturday night’s finale to salvage the title. But with the big boss on his pit stand calling the race — Penske told The Associated Press before Houston he’d call the final three races of the season and “if there’s any mistakes, any issues, you can blame it on me” — Penske made a mistake.
He called Castroneves to pit lane before the pits were open during a late caution, and Castroneves was penalized by IndyCar. He went from fourth to eighth after the drive-thru penalty.
“I’m so sorry,” Penske radioed.
Castroneves downplayed the mistake.
“That was just a blip on the radar,” he said.
Instead, contact later with Dixon teammate Charlie Kimball broke Castroneves’ front wing. The stop to replace it dropped him a lap down, and Castroneves was the first car a lap down with his sixth-place finish.
For Power, who was racing as much to help Castroneves win the title as he was for himself, ended the night with what he called “the most satisfying win of my life.” Power had gone into the finale three years in a row with the championship on the line, but hit a seam in the speedway last year and crashed.
He’s struggled most of this year and didn’t pick up his first win of the year until Sonoma in August. He then added another victory two weeks ago at Houston, and Saturday night’s win was his second career victory on an oval.