INDIANAPOLIS (Sunday, May 29, 2016) - On the biggest motorsports stage imaginable, Alexander Rossi picked the perfect day to make unimaginable history before a sellout crowd at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a worldwide television audience tuned in.
The 24-year-old Californian and Verizon IndyCar Series rookie literally coasted across the finish line to win the epic 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in most memorable fashion.
Driving the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda, Rossi stretched his last tank of fuel over the final 36 laps around the hallowed 2.5-mile oval, running dry of Sunoco E85R as he entered Turn 4 on the final lap. The car's momentum was enough to carry Rossi across the finish line 4.4975 seconds ahead of teammate Carlos Munoz.
In the process, Rossi became the 10th rookie in Indianapolis 500 history to win the race and the first since Helio Castroneves in 2001. He became a Verizon IndyCar Series winner in just his sixth race and the first to win a race in his debut season since Carlos Huertas in 2014.
"I have no idea how we pulled that off," a stunned Rossi admitted in Victory Circle after drinking and then pouring the celebratory bottle of milk over his head. "We struggled a little bit in the pit stops but Bryan (Herta) came up with an unbelievable strategy. I can't believe we've done this!"
In yet another thrilling Indianapolis 500 that saw 13 drivers swap the lead 54 times - the second most changes in Indy 500 history (68 in 2013) and seventh most for any Indy car race - Rossi led just 14 laps. The majority of the field, including Rossi, stopped for fuel and tires on Lap 164 during the caution period caused when Takuma Sato's No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Honda made light contact with the Turn 4 wall.
Rossi sat seventh on the Lap 167 restart and bided his time as those ahead of him began to peel off for a splash of fuel in the final 10 laps. When race leader Munoz had to stop four laps from the completion of the 200-lap event, Rossi inherited the lead and nursed his car home with help of a tow from another Andretti teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Rossi's final lap averaged 179.784 mph, nearly 40 mph slower than the charging Munoz, but he had cushion enough to coast across the famous yard of bricks by the largest margin of victory since the 1996 race.
"This is unbelievable," said Herta, whose team merged with Andretti's this year to form Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian and field Rossi, who left the American open-wheel junior ranks for Europe and made five Formula One starts in 2015 before returning to race on home soil.
"Man, it was so close at the end," added Herta, Rossi's race strategist. "For a rookie to drive with the poise he did in such a tough situation - I was telling him, 'Don't let anybody pass you but save fuel' - and he did it."
Rossi's deal with Andretti Herta wasn't formalized until a few weeks before the 2016 season opener. His best finish before today was 10th at the Angie's List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 14. Now Rossi is an Indianapolis 500 champion and he continues a trend of rookies winning landmark Indy 500s started by Ray Harroun at the first race in 1911 and Graham Hill at the 50th in 1966.
"I don't even know where to begin," Rossi said. "In February I wasn't even thinking about Indy car, and now we've just won the Indy 500. Thanks to an amazing group of people who gave me an opportunity to come here this year."
The Indy 500 win was the fourth for Andretti Autosport (Dan Wheldon, 2005; Dario Franchitti, 2007; Hunter-Reay, 2014) and the second for Herta (Wheldon, 2011).
"After that last pit stop, I knew that Alex was going to try it," co-owner Michael Andretti said. "We knew then, all right, if he's going to try it, we're going to try different strategies. It really worked out. We had two cars that had a shot at winning with two different strategies.
"To be a part of history, to win the 100th running, to win it with a 1-2 finish is incredible. I'm a bit speechless."
For Munoz, it marked his second runner-up Indy 500 finish in four tries. The Colombian placed second to Tony Kanaan in 2013 to earn rookie of the year honors.
"I was really disappointed when it comes to fuel (strategy) and you lose the race because of that," the 24-year-old said. "I was really disappointed to get second. Half a lap short, that's what it took."
Josef Newgarden finished third in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing.
"Today's gut-wrenching just because I think I had a winning car," Newgarden said. "And when you know you have a winning car and you know you can win the thing and you go for it and it doesn't happen because of a strategy call, it's kind of tough."
Kanaan was fourth in the No. 10 NTT Data Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing, leading 19 laps. It was the 12th Indy 500 that Kanaan has led, second only to A.J. Foyt's 13. Charlie Kimball, also driving for Ganassi, finished fifth in the No. 42 Tresiba Chevrolet.
Defending Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya finished 33rd after crashing his No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet into the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier on his own on Lap 64. Montoya became just the third reigning winner to finish last at Indy, joining Jimmy Bryan in 1959 and Johnny Rutherford in 1977.
"I started making up some ground again and the car was actually pretty good," said Montoya, who started 17th. "I went into (Turn) 2 with a big push and, when I got on the gas, it just came around. It's just disappointing. Our Verizon Chevy was really good. Just a tough day."
Hunter-Reay led a race-high 52 laps but had his bid for victory stifled following an incident on pit lane. Teammate Townsend Bell ran into Helio Castroneves on pit road and Bell's car caromed into that of Hunter-Reay, who finished 24th.
Championship leader Simon Pagenaud finished 19th to end a three-race win streak. The Team Penske driver saw his points lead trimmed to 57 over Scott Dixon, who finished eighth. With double points awarded for the race in addition to qualifying points, Pagenaud has 292 to Dixon's 235 after six of 16 races.
Castroneves failed for the seventh time to become a four-time Indy 500 winner, finishing 11th and retaining third place in the standings with 224 points. Newgarden vaulted from eighth to fourth in the championship with 211 points.