Dixon, Rahal look for title boost at Mid-Ohio

— -- Sunday's Honda 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course kicks off a season-ending stretch run of three races in four weeks that will decide the Verizon IndyCar Series champion before the calendar even turns to September.

The month-long championship showdown pits Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing against the might of Team Penske, which has three drivers in the top five of the standings, led by series points leader Juan Pablo Montoya.

But in the race for the title, both of those four-car teams and their star-studded, Chevrolet-powered lineups are being pushed to the limit by Graham Rahal and the single-car Honda team operated by his father, Bobby.

Hailing from suburban Columbus, Rahal is the hometown favorite this weekend at the challenging natural terrain road course. But the spotlight is on Dixon, whose history of coming from behind to win his three IndyCar Series championships includes a remarkable five wins in 10 Mid-Ohio starts.

In an era when even road races are decided by margins of half a second, Dixon has twice conquered the Mid-Ohio field by half a minute.

That's a psychological edge for the New Zealander, for sure. But Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull says that Dixon and his No. 9 Target team won't treat this weekend different than any other, even though on paper it offers Dixon his best chance to cut into Montoya's series lead.

"I probably sound like Bill Bellichick saying 'It's business as usual,' but we work so hard every day to get to today, and tomorrow, and the next day -- that's just how we do it," Hull said. "We don't really think about the big picture, we think about today's picture.

"It's all about process in sports if you're going to get it right, and that's what Chip Ganassi Racing works hardest on -- process -- so that Dixon can get the most out of the car on Sunday."

Hull has little time for reminiscing about Dixon's win at Long Beach earlier this year, and has an equal lack of enthusiasm for worrying about the possibilities for the season finale at Sonoma, where double points will be awarded.

"I wish we could turn the clock back, but we can't," he said. "Every year you have your ups and downs and when you're fighting to win a championship, you can look back and say, 'If we had just finished one better at this place' or 'If we hadn't made that mistake or had that component failure,' all of those things add up.

"But you can't look at any of that -- only how are you going to get it done today," he continued. "All you can do is work to create your own luck and hopefully we can do a good job of that. I hope Mid-Ohio, Pocono and Sonoma treat us right. ... I know we're going to really work one at a time to see if we can get some dividend here."

For a short time, it looked like the most recent IndyCar race at Iowa Speedway was going to provide a significant shake-up to the points chase. Montoya, the championship leader since winning the season opener at St. Petersburg, suffered a right front suspension failure and crashed after just 10 laps.

Dixon, who was running in the top five, looked set to capitalize. But he too was eliminated by a mechanical problem. That allowed Rahal, who is among nine drivers to win IndyCar races this year, to jump up to second in the standings, 42 points behind Montoya.

Although Mid-Ohio is his home track, it hasn't been Rahal's best track, with just a single top-5 finish in seven starts. He's hoping for the same kind of improvement there that he has experienced almost everywhere this year in what has been his most competitive season of racing Indy cars to date.

"We've got to have this never-say-die attitude," Rahal said. "If I have a race-winning car, we have to win. We can't finish second or third. If we have a 10th-place car, we have to find a way to finish fifth.

"There's no doubt this team can perform and win a championship," he added. "We've got to keep fighting hard."

Rahal and Dixon have to overcome Montoya, who is a previous winner at Mid-Ohio (in 1999 during his CART championship season) and at Pocono. Montoya drove for Ganassi back then, so Hull and his team understand the challenge they face.

Penske has the additional advantage of having three championship contenders to Ganassi's one. Helio Castroneves is fourth in the standings, 54 points behind Montoya and one point ahead of his teammate, defending IndyCar Series champion Will Power.

Ganassi's Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball, a former Mid-Ohio winner, are ninth and 13th in the standings respectively.

"It's difficult because we know the kind of driver Juan is," Hull said. "He's a solid guy. He has the experience, he has the maturity and he knows what it means to win a championship. You can't teach that to somebody.

"He understands that on his worst day, if he does well, it's still going to be good for him. He'll be really tough."

But the driver leading the IndyCar Series standings with three races remaining has prevailed as the champion only twice in the last six years. Dixon won his 2013 title after trailing Castroneves by 49 points with three races to go.

Montoya knows he dodged a bullet at Iowa and needs to run in the top five in all three remaining races if he wants to hold off Dixon, who won at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma and finished fifth at Pocono last season.

"To expect that we would be able to go through the season without a bad race was unreasonable," Montoya said. "Having said that, our day wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been at Iowa and we only lost 12 points to second place.

"We know we have our work cut out for us between now and Sonoma, but this team has answered every challenge that we've been faced with this year."