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Indianapolis 500: Polar opposites form strong bond

INDIANAPOLIS - The personalities of Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon are worlds apart.

Dixon prefers playing the subdued star, while Wheldon embraces his role as the gregarious gentleman.

On the track, however, this seemingly odd couple has given Target Chip Ganassi Racing a perfect 1-2 punch, a combination the world will witness when they start side-by-side on the front row for Sunday's Indianapolis 500.

'Like chalk and cheese,' Wheldon said when asked about their differences. 'When I first joined the team, Scott didn't say much at all. He's somewhat like introverted. When you get to know him, he's bloody funny.'

It took 21/2 seasons to work out the kinks between the New Zealander Dixon and the English-born Wheldon.

Now, the two former Indy Racing League points champions are in sync.

Each has reached Victory Lane once since the IRL IndyCar Series season began and each has two other top-five finishes.

What's changed?

'He's definitely come out of his shell since I've been with the team,' Wheldon said, drawing laughter. 'I think that's a lot of his wife, Emma, too, because he's in a good place with his life right now.'

That hasn't always been the case for the 27-year-old Dixon.

In 2003, he was the talk of the IRL, a rising star who had earned five poles and led 343 consecutive laps over three races. He finished his rookie year, a 16-race season, with three wins, five seconds and nine top-five finishes, enough to win the series title.

A year later, with expectations rising, Dixon stumbled.

He slipped to 10th in the points. Then came an even more dismal 2005.

His only top-five finish that year came the in the second-to-last race of the season at Watkins Glen, which he won. After the season, Dixon's confidence was waning, teammate Ryan Briscoe was let go and Wheldon became his new teammate after moving from Andretti Green Racing.

'Those two years really grounded me,' Dixon said. 'You've really got to be thankful, I think, for a lot of the wins that you do get and when you're on a good roll because it doesn't last too long sometimes.'

The addition of Wheldon changed everything.

Instead of being slighted by the hire, as sometimes happens, Dixon took a hard look at the numbers, his racing style and started taking advice from Wheldon, the 2005 Indy winner and points champion.

'Dan and the AGR guys in those two years were very dominant on the mile-and-a-half (tracks), and they could seem to run the car a lot looser and run the high line a little easier,' Dixon said. 'I think just looking at his data and his style, I think helped me out a lot in my transition in 2006.'

But it wasn't until 2007 that the two drivers really began to mesh.

Wheldon won two early races, at Homestead and Kansas, and Dixon responded by winning four times in a six race span late in the season. It put Dixon in position to win a second points title, which he lost when he ran out of fuel on the last lap of the season's final race at Chicago. He finished second to Dario Franchitti, just like the Indy finish. Wheldon was fourth in the points.

Two-time Indy winner Castroneves is the only driver with more points this season than the two Ganassi drivers, and Dixon and Wheldon have a chance to change that Sunday after taking the first two starting spots in the 33-car field.

They're so comfortable together now that Dixon didn't even balk when Ganassi let Wheldon try and bump Dixon off the pole - although he did breathe a sigh of relief when Wheldon's four-lap qualifying average of 226.110 mph was too slow to win the pole. Dixon came in at 226.366.

'I think over time, we've gotten to trust one another,' Wheldon said. 'You know, I tried to help him a lot, and I think Scott has tried to help me a lot in different situations. I think, over time, we've become what I would call good friends.'

And good competitors who respect one another despite their differing personal styles.

'When he gets in the car, he will give it his all,' Wheldon said. 'That's why I think we get along as teammates because I think we both understand. I think he knew I would try and go beat his time, and I know that if I had beaten it, he would have got in and tried to go again. That's why it works. He's a guy that's dedicated to his job and wants to win, and it's nice to be on a team with somebody like that.'