By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Nothing will be different for Alexander Rossi, heading into a vital 67th career NTT IndyCar Series start at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Rossi has a pivotal task at hand and that’s overcoming a 41-point deficit and dethrone fellow American Josef Newgarden to become the new champion.
What Rossi can’t afford is have another finale fiasco like he endured a year ago on the opening lap at Sonoma when he ran into the back of Marco Andretti, costing him dearly as Scott Dixon, who had the better overall weekend among the two, hoisted his fifth title.
“I guess just because it’s another race, right?” Rossi said. “I don’t think there was anything specific other than the fact it was another day in a racecar, another weekend, we had strengths and weaknesses.
“I think it’s pretty clear throughout the whole weekend that we unfortunately didn’t really have the pace to win. We qualified sixth. Scott qualified second, I think. Just was always going to be an uphill battle.”
The agonizing title loss at Sonoma still lingers in the back of his mind, especially how he was 29 points behind Dixon in last year’s finale to this year being 12 points further with Newgarden being the new target.
“It is disappointing,” Rossi said. “I think we had some bad luck in the second half of the season that cost us pretty dearly. But ultimately it’s things that we can’t change now. So we have an opportunity.
“If we win the race, which we have to do, I’ve been telling everyone really since May or June, you can’t win this championship on two race wins.
Along with his two dominant victories at Long Beach and Road American, he has two poles and seven podium finishes in 16 starts which has kept him within reach of Newgarden, who’s led the standings in every race but the Indianapolis 500.
However, late-season poor finishes at Pocono and Gateway has really set him back in this championship trail.
He would recover nicely when he scored a third-place result in the Grand Prix of Portland, which prompted him second in points heading into the finale as Newgarden finished two spots behind him.
With double points at Laguna Seca, if the Andretti Autosport star wins and Newgarden finishes fifth or worse and unable to score more than two bonus points, it’s series title No. 1 for the 100th Indianapolis 500 champion.
“The motivation and goal has to be to win the race,” Rossi said. “Because it’s double points, that makes overhauling Josef that much more feasible, right? For me, I go into it with the same exact mindset that I’ve had all year. It’s to show up to the racetrack and try and win.”
Although Dixon and third-place man Simon Pagenaud are eligible for the title, it’s really a two-man battle between two Americans who are currently shaping the bright future of modern-day Indy car racing.
Rossi has heard and read about people saying it’s not a big deal that American drivers are succeeding in INDYCAR, a statement he’s not really onboard with.
“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person,” Rossi said. “Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus and Felix.
“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, Oh, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”
Americans they may be, but friendship isn’t part of their repertoire. There aren’t any tensions as Rossi respects Newgarden, but socializing between them is nonexistent.
Despite this, it adds no pressure on Rossi’s championship aspirations.
“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi said. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.
“I mean, we obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends. Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So it doesn’t have any impact.”
The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey will mark the first time Indy car racing hits Laguna Seca since 2004 as the 17th and final round commences Sunday September 22nd. Coverage of the title deciding race starts at 2:30 pm EST on NBC.