SONOMA, California – The needle of the Alexander Rossi emotion meter appeared pegged pretty much in the same place as usual on Sunday: right down the middle.
Minutes after the championship-deciding INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma, which began with a horrendous mishap and was followed by a frenetic comeback that ultimately ended in the slow, suffocating realization that he would not deny Scott Dixon a fifth Verizon IndyCar Series championship, Rossi smiled briefly and exchanged a handshake with teammate and race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay near pit road.
Rossi’s peak of jubilation to date in three Verizon IndyCar Series seasons has been his eruptive sob following a stunning win as a rookie in the 2016 Indianapolis 500. Sunday did not look like a negative emotional equivalent. Maybe because there was also the realization that after steadily developing from a surprise winner in the sport’s greatest race to a weekly threat and a driver who entered the 2018 season finale within 29 points of a first title, there should be more chances like this to exploit in a bright future.
“I knew it was probably a 1 percent shot at getting anything done (to beat Dixon) at the end of the day,” said Rossi, who ultimately finished the race in seventh place and 57 points behind the champion. “I just tried to attack it, move up as many positions as we could. If Scott did have some sort of failure or something, we still needed to be towards the top six or seven. That was the goal.”
The method of attaining the goal never changed, even when the route became muddled. Rossi started sixth and on the first lap deployed the tactics that had set up this bid for a championship. He thrust the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda aggressively into the slight-left first turn heading uphill after the start/finish line. Unfortunately, he made contact with the rear of Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti’s car. The impact, which Andretti said he was unaware of until being told after the race, broke Rossi’s right front wing and flattened the right front tire.
“Alex hit me? I’m surprised he had the flat (and) I didn’t,” Andretti marveled.
Rossi had to limp around the track at a painfully slow pace on that opening lap before pitting to have the wing replaced and a fresh set of tires put on his car. By then, he was last in the 25-car field. He even went a lap down to Hunter-Reay and Dixon – who needed only to stay ahead of Rossi in the running order to secure the title – until making his charge in the second half of the race.
“In reality, it was going to be a hard pedal any way coming into the race with a 29-point gap,” said Rob Edwards, Andretti Autosport COO and race strategist for Rossi. “Just made it a little bit harder, but you just put your head down and you know you’ve got 85 laps to try and make something out of it.
“We’ve raced the same way from the start of the year. That put us in the position that we were in with a chance to win the championship, so, yeah, we weren’t going to change today.”
Rossi was revitalized when Graham Rahal’s battery failure on Lap 44 caused the only full-course caution of the day. Mired in 15th place on the Lap 49 restart, Rossi embarked on a 10-lap charge that picked up eight positions, bumping title contender and 2017 series champion Josef Newgarden to make a pass in the process. It wasn’t the first time fans witnessed Rossi roaring back from adversity, but it’s not the plan he had in mind going into the race.
“I don't want to be in that position. I mean, (at) Phoenix, I don't want to be two laps down. Indy, I don't want to qualify on the last row. Here, I don't want to have a broken wing on Lap 1,” Rossi said of previous scramble situations this season. “You have to be able to make lemonade out of lemons sometimes. Unfortunately, we've had to do that a couple times this year. That's the way it goes.
“To win a championship, you’ve got to have excellent days all the time. I'm sure Scott is more than capable of doing the same thing. Fortunately for him, he was never in the position that he needed to. Now he's won five championships.”
It was exhilarating to watch Rossi but ultimately fruitless. Dixon’s maintenance of second place for much of the race nullified Rossi’s progress. Rossi eventually settled into fifth place before Andretti passed him late in the race. Rossi finished seventh when he ran out of fuel on the last lap.
“We had a pretty aggressive strategy kind of going into it. We kind of stayed the course. We lost the better part of a minute (with the opening-lap incident and pit stop for repairs),” Rossi said. “That obviously puts you back. We saw what happened in Portland with Scott, right? There's always the potential that there's a yellow, then you catch back up, then there's another yellow, all of a sudden you're in the front.
“You don't panic really too early. You just kind of hope that you get a break and it comes back to you. We got half of a break (the midrace caution) which allowed us to challenge to be in the top five, but we didn't get the other half of it that cycled us to the front where we could try to go for the win.”
Team owner Michael Andretti expects Rossi to be going for wins and championships again next season. The arc of his development suggests and demands it. He and Edwards are completely confident there will be a next time.
“I think so, I really do,” Michael Andretti said. “I think as long as we do our job as a team, I think he should be one of the guys fighting for it at the end, like this year.”