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Scott Dixon Wins Chaotic, Caution-Filled Season Finale

Written by Archie O’Reilly

Credit: Chris Owens

Scott Dixon has taken victory at the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey to close out the 2023 IndyCar season, taking his third win of the season in a race marred by eight cautions. It was the final time that Laguna Seca hosted the final race of the season ahead of the switch to Nashville in 2024, and a repave caused significant action.

In a season dominated by Alex Palou, and Josef Newgarden on ovals, with the pair taking wins in nine of 17 races, it was a final chance for a fresh victor. The likes of Will Power, who was on a 17-season winning streak, Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta all headed into the race winless. However, it was Dixon who produced an unthinkable drive again.

There were plenty more storylines heading into the weekend, too, including the Leaders’ Circle and Rookie of the Year battles, and the fight for third-place in the championship. There were farewells for some, including Helio Castroneves in terms of a full-time drive, and points to prove for those without seats as well.

It was one of the drivers departing their teams that led the field to green, with Meyer Shank Racing-bound Felix Rosenqvist snatching pole in his final qualifying session for Arrow McLaren. Behind him, Scott McLaughlin finished inside the top two for the seventh time in his last eight qualifying runs.

Credit: Arrow McLaren

The start of the race gave chaos that the weekend promised, ending a number of days prematurely. Christian Lundgaard was penalised for involvement in contact with two Team Penske cars, with McLaughlin caused to go deep and Newgarden also being forced into the gravel after recovering from his own contact.

Further back, in the incident that ultimately forced Newgarden into the gravel, there was contact between Juri Vips and Graham Rahal. The latter was animated with his young teammate after being forced to retire, after actually making contact with Marcus Armstrong, who was stuck between the pair.

There was lots to unpick through the field, with Scott Dixon also penalised after causing Rinus VeeKay, who qualified a non-oval season-best eighth-place and started sixth after penalties, to spin and require a refire.

Kyle Kirkwood also appeared to sustain damage - one of five drivers to either retire or lose their place on the lead lap. Vips also required more extensive repairs - unfortunate given he had a good opportunity to impress with a fast car - as teammate Rahal retired, with Newgarden and VeeKay also falling laps down.

The mess at the start could have been anticipated. There were 26 red flags across the pre-race weekend test, practice and qualifying, with the repave causing drivers to push harder as track-record speeds - five seconds faster than last year in qualifying - were reached, and the surface slippery off-line. Spins and off-track excursions were not uncommon.

Credit: James Black

Rosenqvist saw the chaos unfold behind him at the race start, but by the end of the first lap back green, an elbows-out move from Palou saw the Swede forced wide and lose the lead, with Power also finding a way through into second.

However, it wasn’t green for long before Newgarden, who was running alone after being sent laps down, spun in his No.2 car and brought out another caution. Once the race did return to green, Rosenqvist produced a similarly aggressive move to repass Power, also allowing teammate O’Ward through.

The race did start to settle beyond this, with Palou able to find his rhythm and consistently build a gap out front. A strategy game was also allowed to unfold, with some opting to pit during the early caution, including a fast-charging McLaughlin after being sent into the gravel by Lundgaard at the start.

It was tranquil for Palou for a while, until Castroneves, who found himself in the gravel after spinning only a matter of corners earlier, rejoined the track in front of the dominant race leader. But, as has been a theme this season, the Spaniard showed his mettle to avoid a possibly perilous situation.

Palou’s lead was, however, wiped out soon after. Fortuitously, though, he managed to dive into the pits moments before the caution waves for Marcus Ericsson spinning compatriot Rosenqvist. A puncture was dealt to the pole sitter, who ended up in the gravel and off the lead lap, with Ericsson losing the engine of his No.8 car.

Credit: Chip Ganassi Racing

The caution proved bad news for many higher up the order, with Herta requiring emergency service, and Power also one driver having to pit from higher up the order and losing a number of places. This did benefit the unlikely likes of Agustin Canapino, Santino Ferrucci and Devlin DeFrancesco, who found themselves in the top 10.

Unfortunately, the saying of ‘cautions breed cautions’ was pertinent. Benjamin Pedersen found himself spun around by Power the instant things went back green, with Helio Castroneves and Callum Ilott also caught up. Ferrucci also went off at speed, though managing to produce a remarkable save in the gravel.

By the time things resumed, Canapino, DeFrancesco and Ferrucci were joined by even more unlikely names of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tom Blomqvist and Sting Ray Robb inside the top 10. And after a few corners, Canapino managed to pass Grosjean, who was running in the podium places before a wide moment.

O’Ward was one driver to weather the chaos, and by the halfway point, which came after four cautions and eight drivers either retiring or finding themselves off the lead lap, he was the only driver to remotely keep in tact with Palou, who managed the restarts with assurance to rebuild a gap at the front.

A fifth caution - for DeFrancesco sending Malukas into the gravel - was timely for O’Ward, who pitted in the nick of time, before Palou, who was unable to enter the closed pits. However, slightly further back, leaders on the alternate strategy, Armstrong and Dixon, were able to stay out and cycle to the front behind O’Ward.

Credit: Juncos Hollinger Racing

Even during the fifth caution, chaos ensued. As those that got trapped by the yellow came into the pits, cycling the likes of Palou and Canapino unluckily to the rear, Ilott found himself spun round at the entrance of the pit lane.

Such were the swings and roundabouts through the race, the likes of McLaughlin and Power found themselves back into the top 10 despite earlier penalties for pitting after repositioning. Even Castroneves cycled into the top five after earlier spins and ventures into the gravel.

The final corner proved tricky during restarts, and another caution was bred as the sixth yellow flew. Blomqvist had been gaining some good experience around the top 10, but contact saw him needing to be refired. Ferrucci’s strong run was also curtailed after a misjudgement saw him airborne after contacting Palou’s rear.

This opened up an opportunity for the likes of Dixon and Armstrong to enter the pits, for what was intended to be a final time, with Dixon jumping his teammates. There were massive variations in strategy caused by the mass of cautions, with many, including O’Ward at the head of the field, stretched by fuel.

It was one of those races that provided almost too much to keep track of - a stark contrast to last year’s race, which provided only the single caution. No matter how many incidents there had been, drivers still managed to find themselves well-positioned, such as Ilott in eighth during the sixth caution despite two spins.

Credit: Chip Ganassi Racing

Yet another caution ensued after final corner trouble, meaning even the pace car needed refuelling. There was enough time for Hunter-Reay to jump up to second, with Grosjean back in the podium spots. But further back, Armstrong found himself spun after going three-wide, causing Ericsson to get stuck. Herta was also involved in contact, with Pedersen and Lundgaard others to get in some trouble.

Unpredictability was rife. Every restart brought out yet another complication to the order as strategy games unfolded. There were a plethora of stories of resilience amid tales of woe for almost every driver. It also made you feel for those that kept out of trouble, namely O’Ward, yet kept being pegged back by cautions.

By the seventh caution restart, 11 drivers found themselves a lap down, with O’Ward leading Grosjean and DeFrancesco, then the two Juncos Hollinger Racing cars. However, on the run down to the first corner, it was Grosjean to take the point, and Dixon soon made up a number of places to pressure a fuel-saving O’Ward.

Soon, though, an eighth caution was brandished as Castroneves spun into Herta in his final full-time race. This saw Grosjean and O’Ward pit and lose a number of positions, though the rear of the lead lap was 13th and 14th by this point, with 12 drivers at least a lap down.

It was a Kiwi one-two with Dixon and McLaughlin unthinkably the leading two by, remarkably, the eighth restart. An incredible day for Juncos saw their drivers restart third (Ilott) and fifth (Canapino) in a sensational day for a team still growing into IndyCar competition, sandwiching championship winner Palou.

Credit: Chip Ganassi Racing

Palou ultimately completed a measured drive, emblematic of his season, to finish third as the Juncos’ dropped back. At the front, meanwhile, Dixon managed to build a gap and execute his third win in four with yet another alternate strategy to comfortably oust McLaughlin, who sealed third in the championship with a second-place.

Ilott looked poised for a career-best fourth, but a late off-track excursion meant he had to settle for joint-best fifth. Power was another recovering driver, and he inherited fourth. Rossi and Lundgaard finished sixth and seventh, with Armstrong sealing rookie of the year in eighth, and O’Ward missing out on third in the championship in ninth. Hunter-Reay likely bows out with a top 10.

It was a tumultuous race full of action at Laguna Seca, with tales of woe and recovery through the field. It is a season finale that no race report can do any justice. Now the countdown to St Pete in 2024 begins. Only 181 days to go…


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