NASCAR

Scott Dixon's latest miss might hurt the most

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP)

Scott Dixon crossed the finish line behind Dario Franchitti. Again.

Still, there he was, visiting Franchitti in Victory Lane, attending the post-race party and paying tribute to his teammate in his speech at the Indianapolis 500 banquet.

Dixon is a great teammate and a better friend. But this latest defeat stung, and it was obvious to anyone who knows ''Dixie'' well.

''He's fiercely competitive,'' Franchitti said. ''I said that to him, when we are in the car, I want to beat these guys so badly because we are competitors out there even if they are teammates. But then I saw him after, and I just felt 'That's my buddy there.' But the thing with Scott is it just motivates him to work harder and push harder.''

A win by any driver at Chip Ganassi Racing is a win for the entire organization. But on Sunday, in the celebration of Franchitti's third Indy 500 win, there was also some sadness for Dixon.

He led 44 laps and swapped the lead with Franchitti 10 times over the final 60 laps as the two red Target cars set themselves up for what should have been a race between teammates to the finish line. But with two laps to go, Franchitti moved back into the lead and pulled Takuma Sato with him. Sato slid past Dixon, splitting the teammates and dropping Dixon to third.

As they took the white flag, Sato made his move for the lead entering the first turn. Dixon, watching it unfold, still thought he had a chance.

''We had good speed to come back and maybe pick them off on the last lap,'' Dixon said.

But when Sato wrecked on his attempt to pass Franchitti, IndyCar brought out the yellow flag and the field was frozen. There was no racing to the finish for Dixon. He was stuck in second, the same spot he was in in 2007 when Franchitti won his first Indy 500, also under caution.

This one was different, though, for many reasons.

The race was a tribute to Dan Wheldon, who won the 2011 Indy 500 but was killed in a fatal accident in the IndyCar season finale last fall. In the outpouring of support for Wheldon's wife and two young sons, it was Dixon who stood above all, temporarily relocating his own family to St. Petersburg, Fla., to pitch in however they were needed.

So it was fitting that the final finishing order was Franchitti, Dixon then Tony Kanaan - Wheldon's three closest friends in the series, and the only non-family members to serve as pallbearers at his funeral. But in a sense, after what everyone had been through and everything Dixon had done behind the scenes, there was a sense of unfairness that Dixon has been denied the chance to put his face next to Wheldon's on the Borg-Warner trophy.

''Aside from the Dan factor, I think everybody, whoever comes here, it's the marquee event, the big event, you're going to do anything to put your face on the Borg-Warner,'' he said. ''I think a lot of us that were close to Dan, you know, you wanted it that little bit more. I guess maybe in the back of your mind you figured he would probably help you out. I think in that situation, seeing how it lined up with the top three, three of Dan's friends, it was a tough one.

''But I think tragedy aside, we would come here the same way, same mindset. It just added a lot to it. I think it would probably feel a little bit more special having won right after Dan.''

Dixon didn't say so, but a secondary sting could have come from simply finishing behind Franchitti again.

A two-time series champion and winner of 27 races - including the 2008 Indy 500 - Dixon has been stymied since Franchitti returned to the series after trying NASCAR in 2008. Dixon has won 10 races since Franchitti returned to IndyCar - as his teammate at Ganassi, no less - but no championships.

He finished second in the championship race to Franchitti in 2007, when they weren't teammates, and again in 2009, when they won five races each as teammates. It was the first of three consecutive championships for Franchitti, as Dixon has finished second, third and third the last three years.

In races, Dixon has finished second to Franchitti six different times.

Ganassi team manager Mike Hull said he has noticed a difference in Dixon since the driver returned from vacation right before the start of the season.

''He's made a total commitment to winning races, and has shown so much maturity,'' Hull said after the race in Indy. ''He's not out there trying to lead the most laps, he's trying to win the race. He did it perfectly on Sunday, he did everything he was supposed to do, and ran the perfect race. It just didn't work out for him at the end. He's an enormously talented race driver. Over time, he's proved that over and over and over again.

''He's matured a lot as a person, which has helped him in the car as a race driver.''

Franchitti said he's noticed a difference every year since they were teamed in 2009.

''Since we got together in 2009, I've just seen him work harder and harder each year,'' Franchitti said. ''He's always worked hard on his fitness, but his mental approach to racing, he's really just stepped that up. It's paid dividends.''

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Follow Jenna Fryer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JennaFryer

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