Alexander Rossi

Thrust into the spotlight seemingly overnight after winning the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in 2016, Alexander Rossi thought some fans had reached the wrong initial conclusion about him.

He’s not one to talk too much and, when he does, he’s typically monotone. That the 26-year-old Californian initially pursued a Formula One career in Europe also led to fans questioning his desire about racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Now a serious championship contender, in second place just 29 points behind Scott Dixon entering the season-ending INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 16, public perception has changed. The whirlwind publicity tour after the Indy 500 win thrust Rossi into the public eye for the next year and he gradually opened up.

“That was a pretty great opportunity to get myself out there and kind of introduce people to who I was because I obviously came into this series without having come up through the U.S. ranks,” Rossi said Thursday in a media conference call. “I was an unknown to a lot of people.”

That positive vibe about him has continued this season. He expresses himself and interacts with the public on Twitter, has shared many observations on a podcast with fellow driver James Hinchcliffe and received overwhelming support for his appearance on “The Amazing Race” with driver Conor Daly.

Those who once thought he was a villain based on his often-times emotionless demeanor and how hard he races opponents have come to the realization that he’s just a direct driver who is highly motivated to succeed.

“I don’t think people’s (initial) perception was very good or fair. I love this championship and everything it represents,” Rossi said. “I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to be here.

“I’m a very introverted person in the first place. I don’t think that’s the personality one needs to be a villain. No, that was never on my agenda. I’m going to race people hard every week and I don’t really care who they are, but that’s about as far as it goes.”

Rossi admits to having a greater understanding of the importance of promotion.

“It’s just about trying to elevate your brand and yourself and INDYCAR,” he said. “I kind of had to learn pretty quickly come May 30 of ’16. I think that was actually a big blessing because it accelerated the learning curve pretty quickly from the off-track standpoint and it really showed how important the drivers are in terms of promotion of the series and what a responsibility we have.

“It’s not necessarily the responsibility of the teams or the promoters or the CEOs of the series, it’s us. That was a completely new thing for me and caught me by surprise, no doubt, but something I’ve come to appreciate and try and make it a personal mission to make INDYCAR something that more people talk about on a daily basis.”

He rationalizes that if he wasn’t driving an Indy car, he’d probably be “miserable” competing in a sports car somewhere. He continually expresses his gratitude to team owners Bryan Herta and Michael Andretti for providing this opportunity.

That he’s an American in this series helps with fans, too.

“I think it’s massive for the series,” Rossi said. “Americans, no matter if you’re fans of American racing or not, it’s hard to cheer for a French guy or an Australian guy. As much as we love them and respect them and admire what they do, Americans are patriotic people. To have Americans winning is great thing for a growing fan base and hopefully inspires more young American racing drivers and go-karters. It’s a cool thing to be able to represent the U.S. in a U.S. series at U.S. tracks.

“The general thing, and it’s been very cool for me to see, from Year 1 to now, the amount of people wearing my shirts and hats and wanting to talk to me in autograph sessions, that’s really increased. So that’s a huge positive and something that I’m happy about and something I hope to grow as the years go on.”

After two wins in his initial two seasons, Rossi has three victories in 2018 as well as one second and three thirds. The championship shapes up as a final showdown between two drivers who have been the most consistent. Rossi has finished ninth or better in 13 of 16 races. Dixon, a four-time series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing, also has three wins and has finished sixth or better in all but two starts.

Rossi’s low-key demeanor resembles that of Dixon, who is known for being succinct.

“I think every INDYCAR driver tries to emulate Scott because of what he’s accomplished and what he’s capable of,” Rossi said. “I haven’t heard that comparison, but I don’t think being compared to Scott in any way is a bad thing.”

The reality that Rossi has ascended to title contender in such a short time isn’t something he thinks much about. True to his nature, he keeps his perspective simple.

“I’m just trying to win races, honestly,” he said. “I don’t really care too much about what it says about anything. I think that if we just do a good job each weekend and show the performance and not make mistakes and we’re continually up front with Scott, Will (Power) and Ryan (Hunter-Reay), then it’s a good thing regardless of how it ends up.”

In a series with so many seasoned contenders and former champions, Rossi has put himself in position to boost his resume and profile even more.

“If it's meant to be, it's meant to be,” he said. “Otherwise, you'll finish second.”

Sonoma Raceway is site of the 2018 finale. Practice begins Friday, Sept. 14, with the afternoon practice airing live at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Verizon P1 Award qualifying will stream live at 6 p.m. ET Saturday, Sept. 15 with a same-day telecast at 8 p.m. on NBCSN.

Live coverage of the championship-deciding race begins at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday. Sept. 16 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.