MADISON, Illinois – This is one time when “Clutch and Coast” didn’t roll Alexander Rossi into victory lane.
The Andretti Autosport driver kept his momentum rolling and championship hopes alive with a strong second-place finish Saturday night in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline. This time, however, Rossi couldn’t make his famous fuel mileage magic result in a win.
The 26-year-old Californian was a player among the frontrunners throughout the 248-lap race at Gateway Motorsports Park. After making a pit stop on Lap 177 with the other leaders under caution, Rossi and his No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda crew elected to try and stretch the 18.5 gallons of ethanol the rest of the way.
It was reminiscent of his now-famous “Clutch and Coast” fuel-saving run to win the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016. Or how he was able to save enough fuel to make one less pit stop when he won four weeks ago in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio for the first of two straight wins as he sliced the gap to points leader Scott Dixon.
As the laps ticked away on Saturday night, however, Rossi had to slow enough to make the proper fuel mileage that Will Power passed him on Lap 236 and drove on to the win.
“It's a mental game because you're trying to obviously hit a fuel number to go X amount of laps, and it was a very, very big fuel number,” Rossi said. “Unlike the (Indy) 500 in 2016, I didn't have a teammate to tote me around (in the draft to save fuel and still go fast), so I had to figure out how to do it myself, which was a big challenge.”
Rossi did have a consolation prize. He finished directly ahead of Dixon and chipped three points off Dixon’s lead with two races remaining.
“It was just enough (fuel) at the end,” Rossi said. “Obviously you want to win the race, but the goal really is to beat Scott, and we were able to do that, despite it only be a couple-point swing. It's something, right?”
The stellar run almost never came to be when Rossi had the closest of calls with the wall on Lap 146. Running second to Dixon, Rossi was attacked from behind by Power, who made an inside pass attempt in Turns 1 and 2. As he drifted up the track, Rossi lost grip and made a miraculous sliding save inches before the car hit the outside SAFER Barrier. With the loss of momentum, Rossi lost another position to teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, but regained his composure and eventually the two lost positions.
“It was one of those ones where I had pretty much given up,” Rossi admitted, “and it just came back, really, probably by the grace of God because I was on the brakes and ready to hit the wall.
“It just kind of corrected itself, and that was a pretty big blessing I got there.”
Over the last three races, Rossi’s hot streak has narrowed his 70-point deficit to Dixon to now just 26 points with two races remaining – the Grand Prix of Portland on Sept. 2 and the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 16, both permanent road courses. With the season finale at Sonoma Raceway awarding double race points, his focus continues to be on making little gains on the four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion.
“The goal right now is just to hopefully get within 20 points going into Sonoma, and then it can really be about ‘who beats the other person’ type of thing,” Rossi said.
“That's where our focus is, and we have found some road course performance definitely in the second half of this year, so we’ve got two road courses coming up. Portland is a very unknown challenge for us all, so it'll be interesting to get on track there. I have complete faith that Andretti Autosport as a whole will build great race cars and we'll be able to be competitive.”
Past championship battles have seen their own levels of gamesmanship and, at times, overly aggressive racing. Rossi admitted that he hasn’t seen a change yet among the fellow contenders, adding it may be due to how much he and Dixon already push each other every race weekend.
“I think we've always raced each other pretty hard,” Rossi said. “That's just the nature of how we are. Yeah, I don't see that really changing obviously come Sonoma.
“There's a lot on the line there, so who knows what will be the case. But again, I'm the one who hasn't won any championships and he's won four, so I should probably take a page out of his book and see what he's done in the past.”
The Grand Prix of Portland airs live on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network at 2:30 p.m. ET Sept. 2. The INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale airs on the same networks at 6:30 p.m. ET Sept. 16.
Heading to Portland, five drivers – Dixon, Rossi, Power, Josef Newgarden and Hunter-Reay – remain mathematically eligible to win the championship.