LONG BEACH, California — The old Alexander Rossi probably would have been a bit miffed about losing 20 minutes of track time in an initial practice due to a tire puncture.
That was the Rossi who arrived at races with a restlessness that often is a defining characteristic of young drivers eager to prove themselves.
ACURA GRAND PRIX OF LONG BEACH: Practice 3 results I Combined practice results
Today’s Rossi has proven himself enough to handle such adversity with confidence and poise. The Andretti Autosport driver stepped out of his No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda after Friday’s early mishap with his front left tire in practice for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and smiled as he spoke to team members.
Back in his sun-splashed home state, the 27-year-old seemed quite comfortable as he prepared anew for a race he won from the pole a year ago. In the second practice session, he brushed a wall with his left rear tire, but no matter. He still finished sixth on the speed chart for that practice and overall.
And in Saturday morning’s final practice prior to NTT P1 Award qualifying, Rossi zipped off the fastest lap of anyone thus far this weekend on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street circuit, at 1 minute, 7.0588 seconds (105.651 mph). Live coverage of the knockout qualifying session to determine the starting grid airs live at 2:45 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN, INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
A year after his emergence as a serious title contender who finished second in the points to five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, Rossi was amused at the suggestion that he’s now a star.
“Why?” he said with a self-effacing chuckle.
The understated winner of five series races in three seasons, most notably his memorable first triumph in the 2016 Indianapolis 500, has come a long way in a short time. That said, he still exudes the humility of a talented driver hungry for more.
Perhaps the better question was why would he panic? The Andretti family has such a successful history at Long Beach — Mario Andretti enjoyed three Long Beach victories and Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti celebrated the first and last of his 42 Indy car wins at this track.
Rossi is understandably confident his car will be fast enough for qualifying and Sunday’s 85-lap race.
“It's very important,” he said of winning the pole at Long Beach. “I mean, I think aside from Indianapolis and Pocono, I think pole is critical pretty much everywhere we go. There's a huge advantage that you have from running in clean air that allows you to make the tires go much farther. You can kind of dictate your own strategy in terms of what you're doing by being able to set the pace. It opens up just a lot of doors and opportunities.”
Rossi enters the weekend fourth in the points after three starts that, by his own standards, would qualify as so-so.
“I think fifth in St. Pete was really all we had,” he said of the season-opening race. “We were obviously on track for a pretty good result in Austin (where he finished ninth at Circuit of The Americas when a late full-course caution jumbled the order). Again, in Barber, I think we had a third-place car (but finished fifth). The yellow hurt us in the end, allowing guys on the two-stop (strategy) to make it.
“I think the general pace has been good. We haven't been really dominant any weekend so far, so we've just kind of been collecting points where we can. Obviously, (Long Beach) is one that's circled on our calendar where we need to put it all together, get a lot of points. I'm hopeful we can go out and do that over the next couple of days.”
Rossi reiterated the lesson learned from last year’s championship chase, when he pushed Dixon to the season finale in a winner-take-all conclusion claimed by the Chip Ganassi Racing driver with a second-place finish in the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma. Rossi didn’t lament finishing seventh there. He recalled having more bad days than Dixon leading up to that race.
“Last year, if we look at us compared to Scott, we were pretty much the same across the board except the days where I had a 12th or 15th, he had a fifth or ninth,” Rossi said.
That’s why his ability to salvage at ninth at COTA was important. Rossi minimized what could have been a really bad day.
Being back at Long Beach takes on added significance because he proved last year that he can dominate on this track if everything falls into place.
“This weekend certainly is one of those where we need to make sure that we dot all our I’s, cross our T’s, make sure we can capitalize on the races where we know we're going to have a pretty strong performance,” Rossi said.
Coverage of the Sunday’s race begins at 4 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.