Mike Hull

Championship seasons are built on what Scott Dixon has accomplished this year in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

He’s won three races, finished in the top five 12 times in the last 13 races and worse than 10th place only twice in 16 races. That up-front consistency is a big factor in his 29-point lead over Alexander Rossi entering the final race of the season, Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma.

But strong runs aren’t the only reason Dixon has a chance to win his fifth series championship. At least five times this season, he salvaged strong points finishes from races that seemed bleak because of poor qualifying, mishaps, penalties or a combination. Because of it, Dixon has an opportunity to move into second place on the all-time Indy car list behind only seven-time champion A.J. Foyt.

It reminds Mike Hull, managing director at Chip Ganassi Racing and Dixon’s race strategist for the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda, of something team owner Ganassi has said often about the importance of early season results.

“Chip says the points they give away today are the same points they give away at the end of the year, but at the end of the year they’re much harder to find,” Hull said. “You have to be prepared at the beginning of the year to get the most out of those hard days.”

There have been challenges for Dixon’s crew in 2018, starting with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Dixon qualified ninth but collided with Takuma Sato early in the race and was penalized to the back of the field. He later committed a pit speed violation and served a drive-through penalty. Yet, through strategy and superb driving, Dixon rallied to finish sixth. It wasn’t splashy, but so much better than it could have been.

“We never give up, and we kept fighting to the end,” Dixon said after the race.

Or, as Hull describes a race like that: “Some days you have control over the situation and some days the gorilla is chasing you around the racetrack. You have to be prepared to deal with everything mentally and emotionally each day if you’re going to get the most out of it.”

That was only the beginning.

Dixon qualified 17th but finished fourth at the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix in early April. He rallied from the 18th starting spot to finish second in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in May. At the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway in August, Dixon qualified 13th before finishing third.

In perhaps his greatest combination of good fortune, strong pace and effective strategy, Dixon emerged with hardly a scratch from a cloud of dust and a five-car pileup at the start of the Grand Prix of Portland two weeks ago, complicated his comeback with another drive-through penalty after a pit speed violation, yet finished fifth. The 30 points earned allowed the “Ice Man” to put three more important points between him and Rossi, who finished eighth.

In a season with such parity throughout the field, every point is precious and any bigger hiccups in those “salvage” races could have altered the standings going into Sonoma.

Consider this: Had Dixon finished one position lower in each of those five races, his lead over Rossi would be just 15 points now. Two positions lower and he would lead by only four points. Three places lower and he would go into Sonoma behind Rossi.

By finishing 21st or better in Sunday’s race, Dixon automatically eliminates Team Penske’s Will Power and Josef Newgarden from any chance of usurping the championship. Aside from that, he needs to finish ahead of or close behind Rossi.

Both Dixon and Hull preach a team-first mantra, that success is the result of hard, effective work by everyone involved. But Hull also knows where that success, and the ability to make something from a dire situation, starts.

“You rely on the quarterback who drives your car,” Hull said. “Racing is about assembling a terrific group of people around somebody who has two hands on the steering wheel who can get it done every week. Part of what makes Scott Dixon a great race driver is that he never gives up. No matter how bleak it might seem or how good it is, he tries to get the most out of what’s available on that given day.”

The INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma weekend commences with a pair of practice sessions on Friday, starting at 2 and 6 p.m. ET. The first practice streams live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com, youtube.com/indycar and the INDYCAR Mobile app and will air on delay at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The second practice airs live on NBCSN.

A third practice is set for 2 p.m. ET Saturday ahead of Verizon P1 Award qualifying at 6 p.m. Both sessions stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com, youtube.com/indycar and the INDYCAR Mobile app, with NBCSN airing a same-day qualifying telecast at 8 p.m.

Live coverage of the 85-lap race to determine the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series champion begins at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.