Alexander Rossi

Alexander Rossi’s brief but notable career in North America has been unconventional. After toiling most of his life for a full-time career as a Formula One driver, the Californian repatriated to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2016 as a talent, an oddity and, perhaps, a fleeting commodity.

He won the Indianapolis 500 in his first try, exploiting a fuel gambit to earn an unexpected swig of milk and a responsibility he admittedly had no grasp of until it was his to manage.

After beginning his Indy car career with the accomplishment that is the maddeningly unfulfilled pursuit of most, Rossi set about backfilling his legitimacy as a weekly contender for different trophies and a perennial suitor for championships. A steady progression has spiked into an opportunity in just three seasons. Rossi grew into the standard bearer for an Andretti Autosport team featuring competitive former series and Indy 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti, son of the team owner, Michael Andretti.

With one race left in his third season, Rossi finally is confronting INDYCAR conventional directly. With a 29-point deficit to overcome to win a championship on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, it is completely conventional to expect that he would have to overcome four-time Scott Dixon to prove just how far he has come.

While appreciating the journey and the intended destination, Rossi admittedly would prefer someone other than Dixon to be in his way right now.

“Yeah, probably anyone else, honestly,” Rossi said. “He is by far the hardest to beat. When you can beat him, whether it’s in a session or over a weekend or whatever, it’s a very rewarding thing because you know you’re beating the best. So, it’s a pretty big privilege to be able to race against him, compete against him and be in the same conversation with him this year. It shows how much progress we’ve made as a team and hopefully it continues a long time.”

Progress has been an abstract concept for Rossi since he milked fuel to the checkered flag in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian. It was an experience he describes simply as “weird.”

“It was just a shock for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “A, because I didn’t know the significance of the 500; B, I didn’t know what went along with the 500 in terms of the year commitment that you have and the responsibility you have with the series to kind of promote that race.

“And then beyond that, I didn’t know how any other race win was going to be. It was strange, and definitely not the norm because when I would go into press conferences, I had never been to one before because I hadn’t even been on the podium yet.”

Rossi finished no better than fifth – at Sonoma – the rest of 2016 but won at Watkins Glen amid a late-season flourish last season and claimed wins at Long Beach, Mid-Ohio and Pocono this year to put himself in position to challenge Dixon in the double-points climax of the season.

Creating the opportunity to make this grab for a championship has been a calculated endeavor for Rossi. Now 26, he has continued to express an affinity for INDYCAR since that historic win, even as speculation grew that he could parlay it into a return to Europe. His re-signing with Andretti last year came with a desire to solidify himself as a present and future star in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

He’ll have the chance to take that next step in Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network), at the road course nearest his Nevada City, California, home.

“It’s cool to be able to go to a racetrack and know we kind of have proven ourselves to not only win on a strategy race,” he said, “but also to be there for the long haul and hopefully win a championship.”