By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — After a day filled with pit challenges, off strategy calls and random misfortunes for other Verizon IndyCar Series championship contenders, Alexander Rossi managed to navigate through for his second career win and first on a permanent road course in Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen.
Josef Newgarden made a massive move at the start going to the lead, but Rossi was able to get around him at the end of the first turn. With the entire field starting on rain tires, 19 of the 21 cars made pit stops for dry weather tires with Max Chilton and JR Hildebrand the only two cars to stay out another lap as the track was drying out.
Helio Castroneves had a better out lap than Rossi and was able to overtake on the way to Turn 10 while Chilton and Hildebrand pitted the next lap.
Takuma Sato had a reported waste gate issue and had very little power as Spencer Pigot spun coming out of the boot. Looking further through the field, James Hinchcliffe was stopped on track exiting the boot, causing a full course yellow on Lap 5 that allowed Hildebrand and Chilton to catch up to the field.
The field went back to green on Lap 8 with Castroneves ahead of Rossi, Newgarden, Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay but that order wouldn’t last as Dixon would get around Newgarden heading to the inner loop.
The second full course yellow came out on Lap 15 as Sato pulled off course at the entry to the boot. Because of pitting before the yellow came out, Spencer Pigot would get the lead ahead of Max Chilton and Hildebrand.
The field went green on Lap 17 with Pigot leading Chilton, Hildebrand, Marco Andretti and Jack Harvey. Within a couple of laps, Rossi would get around Harvey, Andretti and Hildebrand to get to third place on Lap 20. Soon after Rossi would get past Chilton and would set after the Mazda Road to Indy’s winningest driver.
Pigot would not be passed on track as he pulled into the pits on Lap 22, handing the lead to Rossi. However, Rossi would pit soon after as he had a fueling issue during the last pit stop that necessitated the team having to change the entire fuel rig. The stop dropped Rossi back to 17th.
However, a little bit of luck helped Rossi get back to the front as teammate Takuma Sato spun in the toe of the boot, causing a full course caution that allowed Rossi to get to the front of the field. The restart was on Lap 29.
Rossi led Pigot, Chilton, Hildebrand and Hunter-Reay after the restart. Further down the field, Charlie Kimball was looking to get around Josef Newgarden for position but lost out coming out of the boot. He lost more positions after brushing the wall coming out of Turn 11 and fell back to P17.
Rossi continued to lead until he made a pit stop on Lap 43 and with Chilton following him, Dixon then went to the lead for the first time but it was short-lived as Dixon pitted on the next lap with much of the field.
The next lap had Newgarden pitting with teammate Will Power but coming out the pits was where everything went wrong for the Tennessee native. While following Power, Newgarden was carrying a lot of speed and hit the wall lining the pit exit. Sebastien Bourdais would pile into the rear of Newgarden’s car as Tony Kanaan would also hit the wall like Newgarden.
A full course yellow was called and Rossi led Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Castroneves and Graham Rahal to the green on Lap 49. Newgarden at this time was down in 18th, two laps down and only three points ahead of Scott Dixon.
Dixon would close on Rossi as the race came to a close by could not get around the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner as the checkered flag came out over the No. 98 NAPA Honda for Andretti Autosport.
Rossi’s victory was the first for an Andretti Autosport car on a natural terrain road course since Barber Motorsports Park in 2014 and showed a lot of progress had been made.
“Today I was finally able to prove what I’ve been talking about the past month, two months, in terms of the step forward Andretti Autosport has taken,” said Rossi.
“We have the package in the car and the people to be at the front. Just had things go wrong and we weren’t able to execute fully.
“But today was that day. Despite the fuel issue which was pretty unlucky, it came around. It came to us by getting that yellow flag to get our track position back. From there it was a straight-out fight between Scott and I. The NAPA Auto Parts Andretti Honda was on the same level as him all weekend. It was just about making sure I did my job at that last restart and was able to hold him off.”
For Dixon, today brought him very close to the points lead but he’s not treating next week any differently and hinted that Newgarden shouldn’t treat it differently either.
“I think you just got to treat next week as another race,” said Dixon. “I think you can’t overcomplicate it. Obviously we want to win it. There’s a lot on the line. But, you know, I think if you overthink things too much, then it ends up being a very bad thing.
“I’ve never raced Josef really in a championship like this. It’s not just the two of us. I haven’t seen the points clearly yet, but I imagine Helio is through, Pagenaud is still there as well. With double points, you can have a pretty hefty swing, as we found out last year.”
Hunter-Reay was a strong third after starting seventh and had one of his better races of the year, especially with the varying amounts of downforce because of the unpredictable conditions.
“It was definitely racy out there because of the different downforce levels,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was fun, though. We were on the right side of it with what we picked. It was a good time.”
With the changing conditions, everybody pitted soon after the start for dry weather tires and had to take it easy a bit on a still drying track.
“It was a little sporty there for a lap or two on cold sticker slick tires getting through those sections,” said Hunter-Reay. But it seemed like everybody weathered it just fine and got through it.
“It’s always fun when you’re dealing with a track that’s changing conditions like that because you have to search around. You can get big advantages or you could lose a lot, big disadvantages. It makes it fun.”
The final IndyCar race of the 2017 season is the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on September 17th at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California.