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IRL's Dixon fears '04 repeat for Toyota teams

By BRANT JAMES
Published December 19, 2004


SEBRING - Scott Dixon was just a few hours into the unofficial beginning of the Indy Racing League season and he already had seen enough to know how the whole thing could turn out - just as badly as in 2004.

Red fire suit rolled to his waist, cell phone pressed to his ear, Dixon was killing time between runs at a Toyota engine test on Monday at Sebring International Raceway and wondering if the manufacturer was somehow formulating a way to counter the dominance rival Honda established last season. With the tools he had now, Dixon said, he had little hope of reclaiming the driver championship he won as a series newcomer in 2003.

"I think we'll be closer," said Dixon, 10th in points last season. "But I think with the difference between the two (engines), if they stay the same, no."

Honda's blitz on the IRL precipitated Dixon's plummet last season. He led the circuit in wins (three), poles (five), races led (14) and laps led (748) in 2003 but finished as high as second just once last season. Honda drivers won 14 of 16 races and claimed seven of the top 10 spots (including the top three) in points. "All you want as a driver is to have fair stuff, the same as everybody else," said Dixon, 24. "And when you have a big deficit like that, it's pretty hard, and most of the time you push it too much and you step on your toes and make things worse."

Toyota engineers refused to discuss any upcoming changes, and crewmen from the Ganassi, Penske and Cheever teams participating in the Sebring test were quick to intercept anyone wandering too close to their work areas.

Toyota and Honda entered the IRL in 2003 and have squeezed out Chevrolet, which will leave the series after 2005. Chevrolet will supply engines to just one full-time team, Panther Racing, in '05.

Toyota won 11 of 16 races in 2003 but was caught off guard by Honda's mass outlay of resources in 2004.

Still, it's not so bad a gig being Scott Dixon. He's one of 10 men featured in the January issue of Esquire in an article headlined: "I want that guy's job."

NO PLANS: Racing continues to diversify with Rahal Letterman announcing last week it signed Danica Patrick to a full-time IRL ride and Ray Evernham signing sprint car standout Erin Crocker to a deal that will allow her to race three different circuits, including the Busch series. Haines City's James "Bubba" Stewart, a world champion motocross rider, remains a hot property among Nextel Cup teams, but has yet to officially test, he said.

"Just having NASCAR teams talking to me has been pretty cool," said Stewart, an African-American. "I mean, I'd love to race in that series someday. They race in front of hundreds of thousands of fans every weekend on major television. Who wouldn't want that? Its definitely something I would want to do down the road."

CHANGES: The two races used to determined qualifying order for the Feb. 20 Daytona 500 will have a new name and distance beginning this season. The races, informally known as the "twin 125s" will now be known as the Gatorade Duel at Daytona, with each expanded to 150 miles. The extra 10 laps, ostensibly, will force teams to use more aggressive pit strategies.

The Duels are scheduled Feb. 17. Unlike other Nextel Cup races, where drivers earn starting spots in qualifying, the bulk of the Daytona 500 grid is determined by finishes in the Duels.

The NHRA announced on Thursday new technical specifications for its Top Fuel and Funny Car categories beginning in 2005, among them a requirement that all cylinder blocks to be forged.

SPARK PLUGS: Dodge is reintroducing the Charger as its Nextel Cup brand for 2005, the same year that arguably the most recognizable of all such cars - the General Lee, a 1969 model - appears in the Dukes of Hazzard movie. But what seems like the kind of ready-made cross-promotional opportunity that NASCAR thrives upon isn't of interest to Dodge. A bright orange paint scheme on a Dodge Nextel Cup car for a race around the July movie release date would seem like a natural, though Joe Nemechek's Chevrolet has dibs on number "01." But the real trouble is the decoration atop the General Lee - a Confederate flag - whether it appears in the movie version or not. Dodge has no plans to do promotional work with the movie for fear of associating itself with the symbol or the Duke cousins' good ol' boy image. ... Veteran Frank Stoddard, 36, has been hired to crew chief Boris Said's planned 10-race NASCAR Nextel Cup campaign with MB/Sutton Motorsports in 2005.