A tale of what was and what is

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The master of the "new" Indy Racing League finally overtook the master of the "old" Indy Racing League on Sunday when Scott Dixon claimed his 20th career IRL victory (and 21st overall) by almost half a minute to break a tie with Sam Hornish Jr. and become the league's all-time win leader. But Dixon knows that he may not be able to hold on to the title unless he keeps performing at a high level for the rest of his career. "To finally be labeled [Mr. IRL], I think in this series is a big deal to me, a big deal to the team," he said on Sunday. "But it's going to be tough to hang on to that. I think Helio is pretty close. He's at, what, 16 or so. Maybe a couple others are on 14 or 15. To keep that going, I'm definitely going to have to keep racing for a lot more years. "If I got to 25, 30 or 35, that would be pretty cool." But those numbers wouldn't even get Dixon within striking distance of A.J. Foyt, who holds the all-time Indy car racing record for wins with 67. Behind him is Mario Andretti at 52 and son Michael at 42. Al Unser, Sr. (39), Bobby Unser (34) and Al Unser, Jr. (34) round out the "big list," which combines sanctioning from the American Automobile Association, USAC, CART, Champ Car World Series and Indy Racing League. And Dixon's not even the top guy amongst active IndyCar Series drivers. That honor goes to Paul Tracy, who's seventh with 31 career wins. Helio Castroneves is 16th with 22 wins. Dixon and Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti (also with 21 wins) are tied for 19th, one behind the 22 triumphs each for Tony Bettenhausen and Emerson Fittipaldi. But when it comes to the adolescent IRL, the 29-year-old Dixon is No. 1. He debuted with a bang by winning his first IRL start at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2003 and survived a five-driver battle that ran to the final race of the year to claim the league championship. Two sub-par seasons followed, but 2006 marked his return as a contender and two years later, he won his second IRL title. During that time, the league began to shift. Drivers and teams migrated from CART as did the blood feud between Honda and Toyota. Road courses began to pop up as islands in the speedway sea. And, it can be argued, the "all-American" IRL started turning into the very entity it was supposedly built to destroy. Today, the league features drivers from around the world. Only Honda is left standing. Next year will see more road and street courses than ovals on the schedule. Drivers must now be top-flight in multiple disciplines, and with 13 oval wins and 7 road/street wins in his IRL career, Dixon embodies that trait.
But what about the man that he's now put behind him on the league's win list? Before Sam Hornish Jr. made his jump to NASCAR in 2008 as part of a wave of open-wheel drivers flipping to stock car racing, he won 19 times in his eight-year IRL career. Starting with PDM Racing in 2000, he moved to Panther Racing in 2001 and rolled to the championship. In 2002, the young gun from Defiance, Ohio and his scrappy squad delivered a shocking upset over Castroneves and mighty Team Penske, which joined the league that season. It was the zenith of the "old" IRL era. In 2004, he joined Penske and won in his first race with them, again over now-teammate Castroneves. But he had to wait two seasons before giving Roger Penske his first IRL title by besting Dan Wheldon in a tie-breaker (Hornish won four races; Wheldon won twice). He was unable to replicate his success in 2007 and after running a number of Sprint Cup races that year, he went South. As the league continued to feature more and more road racing, Hornish initially struggled with turning left and right. But in 2007, Hornish notched top-5 results at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, a sign that he was improving at the time. Unfortunately, we may never know if Hornish could score a road course win in an IndyCar. "For me, I've watched [Dixon] get better in all the different disciplines," said Franchitti on Sunday. "He can win on any type of track. And Sam is a fantastic oval driver but really struggled on the road courses. But he was getting better before he left for NASCAR. ... So I think that's the big difference between the two. They're both great drivers." Who is greater then? Conventional wisdom says Dixon with his mastery of all the tracks. But what if Hornish had stayed in the IRL and built himself as an equal on road courses to Dixon, Franchitti and the other former CART drivers? Right now, that battle can only be carried out in our imaginations. "Unfortunately, Sam's not still here to defend [the record]," Dixon said of his old rival. "That's the sad side of it."
Tagged: Dario Franchitti, Paul Tracy, Sam Hornish Jr.

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