Alexander Rossi

It was a season of ups and downs, but in the end, Alexander Rossi proved he is a driver to watch closely for next year’s Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Turning 26 on Sept. 25, Rossi broke out in the last part of this season with a dominating performance at Watkins Glen International to win the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen from the pole, along with podium finishes on the streets of Toronto and Pocono Raceway.

The only thing to derail a streak of five straight top-six results for the Californian was a mechanical issue in the final race of the season, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 17, relegating Rossi to a 21st-place finish. All things considered, he still finished seventh in the point standings in his second season in the series.

“I’ve said since Day 1 this year that we are a lot quicker than we were in 2016, but there were circumstances that prevented us from showing that,” said Rossi, driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian.

“Now, circumstances have been more reasonable and not as out of left field as they were in the first half of the year. So I think it’s just the pace that we’ve had all year, but it was good to get the checkmarks done on the year – the podium at Toronto, pole and win in Watkins Glen was positive. I think we had a shot to win at Pocono, but we had the fuel knob thing, which was weird.

“Ever since May, I’ve felt like we’ve had a really strong car and just haven’t capitalized when we’ve needed to,” continued Rossi, who burst on the international scene when he was the surprise winner of the historic 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil as a rookie in 2016. “We’ve made some small errors in crucial moments of the race that have cost us, but I think this is the results we should have been getting since May onwards.”

The former Formula One driver added that things started coming together in May with race engineer Jeremy Milless, who joined Andretti Autosport over the offseason from Ed Carpenter Racing.

A second-year campaign that was anything but a sophomore slump, Rossi also attributed the gains made by the team as a whole, as well as his ability to return to circuits that were new to him in 2016.

“You learn every time you are in a race car and this championship rewards experience, for sure, because there are so many guys that have been here for so long in these cars on these tracks,” said Rossi, the 2016 Sunoco Rookie of the Year for both the Indy 500 and the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“Each time I come back to a track that I was at last year, it’s better. We can start (the race weekend) off on a much more competitive foot than we were last year. Then on top of that, the performance of the car with the personnel changes and the mindset changes that we made in the offseason, has been way higher as well.”

Rossi fired a bit of a warning to the rest of the paddock for next season, saying he and Milless are just beginning to hit their stride.

“You start to see what we’re doing right now, and we’re still not even at the point we want to be from a car performance standpoint,” Rossi said. “There are a lot of small areas where we feel we are lacking still. I think that if we continue our rate of development, despite it being a new car (universal aero kit) for 2018, we’re going to be really strong out of the box.”