When contact at the very start of last September’s Sonoma Raceway finale ruled Alexander Rossi out of championship contention at the end of a competitive third year in the NTT IndyCar Series, pundits and competitors alike knew he’d force his name back into the hat with a vengeance in 2019.
Rossi’s pole-to-win affair on the demanding Long Beach street circuit came after quiet runs to fifth place at St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park were split by a disappointing ninth at Circuit of The Americas where the No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda was shuffled back due to the timing of a full-course caution.
Aiming to launch into the month of May with the momentum he racked up in his home state of California, Rossi faltered in a competitive knockout qualifying session on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and earned a starting position in the dangerous back of the field while his rivals enjoyed clear track ahead.
Contact with Pato O’Ward before the two even sped under the green flag damaged Rossi’s Dallara-built Honda, making Andretti Autosport’s main title contender its worst finisher to begin IndyCar’s marque month. With its marque race around the corner, the same pundits and the swelled Indianapolis 500 field knew Rossi would stop at nothing in his bid to become a two-time winner of the race.
What ensued was a comprehensively infuriating two hours, 50 minutes and 39 seconds lapping the 2.5-mile superspeedway that led to an unsatisfying second-place result for one of IndyCar’s most promising pilots.
Rossi and the blue and yellow Honda led for the first time of the day on Lap 68, right before making their second pit lane visit. Ten laps later, Rossi restarted in fourth after Kyle Kaiser spun and contacted the wall. Simon Pagenaud led while Ed Carpenter, one-lap-down Oriol Servia and Josef Newgarden ran in front of Rossi.
The powerful but fuel-thirsty Chevrolets of Pagenaud, Carpenter and Newgarden had to pit as early as seven laps before Rossi, solidifying his status as a frontrunner as he landed second after the cycle of green-flag stops concluded by Lap 113.
Rossi pursued leader Pagenaud from then until Lap 129 when Pagenaud ducked into pit lane, dropping to 21st but reemerging as the leader by the end of this round of stops.
It was during that exact period that the most important segment of Rossi’s race played out. His fuel tank lasted until Lap 137 — right before a critically timed yellow gave Rossi and his entire crew a massively lucky break.
Had Rossi’s stop at that point been without trouble, the lucky break would’ve been welcome but unnecessary and Rossi would’ve entered the final 50 laps potentially with an advantage over leaders Pagenaud, Carpenter, Newgarden and Sebastien Bourdais.
Instead, Rossi’s fueler struggled to attach the hose. The mechanical problem on pit lane, foreshadowed by a slow stop earlier, resulted in the loss of roughly 15 seconds over a typical pit visit.
Rossi dropped twice as many positions down the running order as during previous stops, but calming instruction on the radio from Andretti’s Chief Operating Officer Rob Edwards at that time wasn’t the only positive the driver experienced as his day was otherwise turned upside down.
At the other end of pit lane, Indy 500 rookie Marcus Ericsson spun as he peeled off the racetrack, contacting the pit wall and prompting INDYCAR to introduce the yellow flag for the third time.
The timing couldn’t have been better for Rossi. Pitting moments before the yellow meant, upon returning to the racetrack, Rossi would leapfrog the beneficiaries of one of the most dreadful pit stops of his IndyCar career as they parked for service themselves at the base of IMS’ iconic pagoda — at least those who hadn’t pitted before the yellow.
Furious and relieved all at once, Rossi restarted in fifth after falling to 13th. Three-quarters of the race were done, but Rossi’s list of reasons to be angry was incomplete.
Passed by Conor Daly and Bourdais on the restart, Rossi was also tasked with putting Servia — still a lap down — back behind him, but the Spanish driver nearly put Rossi into the frontstretch’s inside retaining wall on consecutive laps and swerved across him into the inside line entering Turn 1 between those close calls on Lap 154.
“I think it was one of the most disrespectful things I’ve ever seen in a race car, to be honest,” Rossi said of the Servia skirmish. “He’s a lap down and defending, putting me to the wall at 230 miles an hour. It’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for him, and it’s unacceptable that INDYCAR allowed it to happen as long as they did.”
With two cars ahead yet to pit, Rossi passed Pagenaud for the true race lead on Lap 178, moments before the day’s biggest crash froze the running order with the Indy 500’s first red flag since 2017.
Rossi became the leader as the field lined up in single-file fashion on pit lane while the AMR INDYCAR Safety Team cleaned up the incident scene between Turns 3 and 4. Rossi circulated behind the pace car ahead of Pagenaud for a few laps under caution before the green flag flew and kickstarted an epic 14-lap duel.
Despite swapping the lead with Pagenaud five times from Lap 187 to the checkered flag after Lap 200, Rossi crossed the Yard of Bricks with the lead just once over those final 14 revolutions.
Pagenaud’s excessive fuel use meant his final stop on Lap 169 may have been too early to get the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet to the end. The five-car wreck eliminated Rossi’s prime advantage as the caution laps required less fuel and ensured Pagenaud had enough to fight for the victory. Whereas Honda remained the engine to have for fuel economy, Chevrolet’s powerplant provided more power. Pagenaud had the upper hand.
Even so, without the abysmal pit stop, Pagenaud’s victory over Rossi may have been a headline never written. And if Rossi’s run-in with Servia cost him more than Pagenaud’s victory margin of 0.2086 seconds, eliminating that would’ve made Rossi’s comeback drive a total success.
Rossi will return to the cockpit at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit this weekend. Given his devastation coming off the hard-fought runner-up Indianapolis result and his costly mistake while leading Race 2 of last year’s Detroit doubleheader, Rossi’s competitors will surely be on notice in the Motor City and beyond.