Alexander Rossi and Jeremy Milless

Alexander Rossi’s ascendance in the Verizon IndyCar Series can be attributed to familiarity.

A second season in which he won his second career race and improved four spots to seventh in the points standings wasn’t because he drastically changed his driving style, according to Jeremy Milless, race engineer on Rossi’s No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian.

Milless, who worked with the 26-year-old Californian for the first time this season, says Rossi is becoming more accustomed to the series tracks as well as gelling with his crew to set up the car the way the driver likes.

The engineer makes the comparison to another young driver who showed a lot of potential in recent years. He previously worked for three years at Ed Carpenter Racing with Josef Newgarden, who won his first series title in 2017 after joining Team Penske.

Rossi surged late in the year with five consecutive top-six finishes culminating in an impressive victory from the pole at Watkins Glen International in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen. 

Milless anticipates Rossi being able to contend for a series championship next season.

“For sure, he’s as fast if not faster on road and street courses than Josef. He’s quicker,” Milless said. “The only thing Josef would have on Alex is (Newgarden) ran the Indy Lights series so he had a full season more of oval time. Every time we go to an oval, especially a short oval, Alex reminds, ‘This is like my fourth short oval.’ That puts it into perspective. That’s the area where both he and I need to work the most, on short ovals. If we can make a step in the short ovals, we’ll be super strong.”

Rossi reiterated for much of the season that he was faster than in 2016, when the series Sunoco Rookie of the Year emerged in dramatic fashion with a victory in the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Since swigging the milk, he said the continual goal was to become a consistent contender in every race.

Part of that evolution involved using his new race experiences to strengthen the relationship with his crew. Whereas the former Formula One driver often had to rely on data from Andretti Autosport teammates in the past, he was providing his share of valuable intelligence this past season.

“It was just how well we understood each other, ‘what I can actually give you’ and ‘what you actually want,’ and getting on that same page,” Milless said. “He’ll get stronger again next year. It was the same thing when running Josef. After you go back to places a couple of times, you know, ‘OK, I’ve been down this road before, so we know we don’t need to go that direction. If we have this issue, that’s what we’ll work on.’ That’s part of it, narrowing down the changes that you’re most likely going to make. That’s where the time together really starts to pay off.

“You start to get that built up and that’s when you start clicking together and making big advancements.”

Milless recalls how Rossi had a strong test at Watkins Glen and was quick from the get-go in practice.

“Where he’s best is on super-high-commitment tracks like Elkhart Lake and Indy, places where it’s really high commitment,” Milless said. “He’s a really talented driver and he’s pretty technical and mega brave. That’s where those high-speed circuits and high-commitment circuits are where he’s strong at.

“We went and had a good test at Watkins Glen. You don’t always know that when you have a good test, you’re going to go back and it’s going to be good again because conditions change and the guys you’re testing against can get a lot better. I had a hunch going back there that we were going to be pretty good. Off the trailer, through a lot of the high-speed sections, he was quite quicker than his teammates at the start until they had a chance to look at data and say, ‘OK, he’s doing this.’”

What stood out most about that victory was how he prevailed, rebounding from a bad pit stop to win a duel with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, a four-time series champion who has four career wins at Watkins Glen.

“Scott Dixon is the best basically around Watkins Glen,” Milless said. “At the end of that race, Alex and Scott had an entire-stint shootout where both of them were putting in full qualifying pace, very on-the-edge laps. They were legitimately full-out racing as fast as they can go and he beat him. 

“He did it completely on performance. It wasn’t lucking into fuel or race strategy and things just happened. It was full-on performance.”

Rossi was eighth or better in 10 of 17 starts with five top-five finishes. In addition to his victory, he was second in the Honda Indy Toronto and third in the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. That’s a marked improvement from the year before, when he had just two top-five finishes and was eighth or better in four starts.

What stands out about Rossi is his focus. He acknowledges the late-season success but assured there’s still so much more room to improve.

“The consistency has still not been quite to where we want it to be,” Rossi said. “It's definitely been better the second half of the year, no doubt. But the beginning of the year, obviously we were lacking results. I'd say that we accomplished maybe 50 or 60 percent of what we were trying to do, but certainly not all the way.”

In other words, as Milless also asserts, Rossi has merely scraped the surface of what’s possible.

“Through the year, we were getting stronger and stronger, in practice sessions, qualifying and race results,” Milless said. “Then to finally get it (the win at Watkins Glen), it was like, ‘Hell yeah, I deserve to be here. I did this on merit.’”

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