By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
SONOMA, California — Alexander Rossi fell short of capturing his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship, but he made sure to go down fighting in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway.
The 26-year-old Californian’s day began on the wrong foot after a cut right front tire on the opening lap set him back for the remainder of the 85-lap contest. Although he rebounded to finish seventh in Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma, the outcome left second in the overall standings, 57 points behind newly crowned champion Scott Dixon.
The setback started as soon as the green flag dropped when he ran into the back of Marco Andretti, sustaining right front damage. Then heading into Turn 2, he locked up the breaks after hitting the kink in the uphill. As a result, he began losing track positions and went on a detour to prevent others from hitting him. Rossi was able to blend back to the circuit and pitted to repair the front wing and replaced his punctured right front tire. This forced the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda team to run on a two-stop strategy, and staying on the lead lap.
Most would fall on their face when facing an insurmountable pressure of rallying and changing a game plan, there was no signs of pressure for Rossi and let the race come to him.
“We had a pretty aggressive strategy kind of going into it. We kind of stayed the course. We lost the better part of a minute. That obviously puts you back,” said Rossi, who just finished off his third season in North America’s premier open wheel championship.
“We saw what happened in Portland with Scott (Dixon), right? There’s always the potential that there’s a yellow, then you catch back up, then there’s another yellow, all of a sudden you’re in the front.
“You don’t panic really too early. You just kind of hope that you get a break and it comes back to you.”
For the remainder of the finale, it was putting his pedal on the floor and let circumstances dictate his fate.
That circumstance took place on Lap 44 when Graham Rahal stopped his car in Turn 6, bringing out the only full course caution. This allowed Rossi to stay on the lead lap after being a few tenths ahead of race leader Ryan Hunter-Reay. As soon as the green flag waved once again, Rossi was ready to pounce and showcase why fans revere him as one of the most exciting competitors in the IndyCar Series.
Rossi moved up from 20th to 14th on the Lap 50 restart and pick pocketed his way into the top-10 in just under three laps. Some competitors were willing to let the Californian improve his track position such as Tony Kanaan, but others like fellow title contender Josef Newgarden, Rossi had to divebomb to the bottom at the exit of Turn 10 to get by him.
As the laps began to bear down, Rossi was in fifth, but he needed another caution to get himself back into the championship battle. However, any last shot of catching Scott Dixon collapsed after Marco Andretti and Sebastien Bourdais got by the 26-year-old in the closing laps, and ended up in seventh for good.
Rossi said the lack of cautions at the end of the race gave him an indication that his bid was over.
“Once the final round of pit stops came, we kind of chose to come in earlier than everyone else in hopes there would be a yellow, it would cycle us to the front. But it didn’t come,” he said. “They all covered me in case that happened, which was the right thing to do. Yeah, from once the final pit stop kind of happened, there was no yellow flag immediately, I knew it was pretty much the day done.”
Despite not winning the championship, Rossi was proud of the recovery and accomplishments this season that included three wins, three poles and ten top-five finishes.
“The 27 NAPA team did an amazing job of getting us back to a point where we could at least be in contention if something did happen to Scott,” Rossi said. “You know, it didn’t. At the end of the day it was going to be a tough battle, no doubt, to kind of overhaul him with us pretty much having to win.
“It wasn’t meant to be this year. Nonetheless, I think it’s an awesome 2018, and something that we all can be very proud of at Andretti.”