By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama- Starting 18th in a field of 21 cars on a track where passing is difficult doesn’t lend itself to a great day in the Verizon IndyCar Series. For Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, the No. 98 Honda found its way to finishing in fifth place at Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama thanks to some clever pit work.
Under the first major green flag run of the race, Rossi made his first pit stop on Lap 14 from 19th position, forcing the rest of the field to start their pit cycle.
“We pitted early and we went onto a quicker tire and so we had three laps where we were in clean air on the reds and we were able to do some quick laps so we jumped a couple of guys there,” Rossi said. “And then, when guys were coming out of the pits, because I had the warmer tires I was really able to really lunge on them and get more spots, but then our race was about saving fuel because we pitted four or five laps before most guys and we had to get to where they were going. The big thing for us was being able to keep a pretty decent pace for us while saving a lot of fuel.”
Of course Rossi knows how to save fuel. See last year’s Indianapolis 500 for a prime example.
“I’ve done [fuel saving] once or twice, I mean we were doing it at Long Beach as well before our engine let go so it’s become my M-O, one day maybe I’ll be able to run a race flat out but it hasn’t happened for a while.”
Rossi had climbed to seventh place by leapfrogging people that had made their stops, but after Rossi made his second stop he was back in 18th. Well that wasn’t a problem for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner as he managed to get back to seventh place again before the yellow came out for Spencer Pigot’s accident on Lap 63.
Rossi was running on the primary black sidewall tires but switched to brand new option red sidewall tires for the last stint of the race. He exited the pits in what was effectively seventh place, although he was eighth in the running order because Charlie Kimball did not pit during the caution.
The Californian then got around James Hinchcliffe when the recent winner at Long Beach went off track in Turn 5 on Lap 70. When Kimball pitted on Lap 75 and leader Will Power pitted with a puncture on Lap 77, that elevated Rossi to fifth, a position he never relinquished.
Rossi, however, was looking for something else that never really came on race day.
“I was praying there was going to be rain. We were quick in the wet this morning in warmup and we’ve been struggling with pace, so the wet is always a good equalizer but that didn’t come and we had to execute in the dry. Considering where we started, we’ll take a fifth. We’ve got to take the good out of the bad and that was definitely a good execution by the whole team.”
This result moves Rossi to 10th in points from 17th and gives him and his team great momentum heading to Phoenix.
“We were quick in testing [there], the whole team was. I felt good, I mean I crashed but whatever, at least we didn’t crash during the race weekend, right?
“So we got it out of the way and Phoenix, despite my lack of oval experience has actually been pretty good for me. So, I know that Honda is going to be a little bit behind, but obviously we’ve seen the steps forward they’ve taken this winter and hopefully we can at least be in the fight this year and if we can come out of there with a top five on a track that usually isn’t good for us, then that’s huge momentum going into the month of May where obviously we’re quite strong.”