Temporarily frustrated by finishes outside the top ten in the first two races of the IndyCar Series season, Scott Dixon is now back where he feels most comfortable - at the head of the championship standings - after five of 17 events.
But, as the reigning series champion knows from experience of the past two seasons, it's tenuous at the top.
"It's more frustrating, how tough the competition is now," said Dixon, who became the first two-time winner of 2009 by darting to the front late in the ABC Supply/AJ Foyt 225 on Sunday, "We've given up our two bad races in the first two races and now we've got to go out and try to maintain and gain as many points as possible."
As Dixon alluded, that won't be easy. Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe and Dixon's Target Chip Ganassi Racing team-mate Dario Franchitti were his closest pursuers at the Milwaukee Mile at the weekend, and are tied for second in the standings, just four points behind the Kiwi. Meanwhile, Danica Patrick, with four consecutive top-five finishes to her name, is just 22 points back, and Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves only 25 behind despite missing the opening round in St Petersburg and having a poor race in Milwaukee.
Panther Racing's Dan Wheldon, runner-up at the 500 and a tenth-place finisher at Milwaukee, and Andretti Green Racing's Tony Kanaan are both within 40 points of the top, but the Brazilian, whose three consecutive top five finishes had him leading the way to Indianapolis, has dropped back with unfortunate incidents the past two weeks that have him smarting, both mentally and physically.
"Luckily enough, there's been a few guys that have had some bad days," Dixon continued, as the series heads to a Texas track where he took pole last June, "Briscoe has been consistently strong and I think, at the moment, between him and Dario and a couple others, those are the guys to watch. But it's going to be a tough season no matter what because there are so many great competitors. They can pop out at any point."
Patrick would consider herself to be one who could 'pop out', as would both Graham Rahal, who finished fourth at Milwaukee and has three front row starts in '09, and Marco Andretti, who advanced six positions to seventh at Milwaukee just days after a first lap incident scuppered his Indy dream.
"There are a good six, seven, eight people that could win this championship," Dixon concluded without being drawn on names.
The series continues its diverse oval adventure under the lights at the high-banked 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway in this Saturday's Bombardier Learjet 550k, before returning to the short ovals at Iowa and Richmond and then the road courses of Watkins Glen, Toronto and Edmonton.
Dixon heads to Texas not only as defending polewinner, but also current race 'champion' and is buoyed by the performance of Ganassi's #9 entry last weekend. After finishing second in last year's Milwaukee event to Briscoe, the Kiwi turned the tables on his Team Penske rival with a three-wide pass for the lead on lap 201 of 225, even though he admitted that he had needed some assistance from the third car in the move.
"I was trying to get the flow of traffic the whole day, but I definitely think, from the start, our car was better," he insisted, "We could run quick times when we needed to, and we were good in traffic. We had many runs on Briscoe, but he kind of blocked a lot and that was frustrating early on. However, he definitely got caught up there with [Tomas] Scheckter, trying to take him on the bottom, and I got a great run on the high side and it just lined up perfect."