Alexander Rossi reached the NTT IndyCar Series season finale knowing he had to gamble. It wasn’t the situation he would have preferred, but he and his Andretti Autosport team took a swing at it. Unfortunately, it didn’t result in a championship.
Rossi was 41 points behind leader Josef Newgarden entering the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sept. 22 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. To wrest the championship from Newgarden, Rossi would have to take chances. He did just that.
Rossi finished sixth in the race while Newgarden finished eighth, enough for Newgarden to capture the championship by 25 points over Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, who finished fourth in the race and second In the final standings, just eight points ahead of Rossi.
In the end, it was all about taking chances. That’s not much different than the 2018 season finale, when Rossi fell 52 points short in his bid to claim the championship. As it did then, this situation required risk.
“We wanted to take a gamble to try,” Rossi said. “It's unfortunate that two years in a row we're in a position to where we have to kind of roll the dice. I'd rather be either leading or within more of a realistic shot so that you can do more of a normal race-type thing. … We probably had a third-place car, which again, wouldn't have been enough anyway.”
The difficulty in taking risks was compounded by the venue. Indy cars hadn’t raced at Laguna Seca since 2004. While familiar with the track’s layout and characteristics, Rossi and his team had no relevant information from which to plan their gamble -- namely in terms of tire degradation of the primary black tires and the alternate reds.
All they had to work with was data from practice and qualifying.
“It's hard because it's a new race with no historical data, so we were looking at qualifying and the fact that used reds on a second run were as quick if not quicker than the new reds,” Rossi said. “So we took that as an indication that maybe the reds would hold on longer than people were expecting.
“Ultimately, that wasn't the case. … It was an educated risk. It just wasn't a shot in the dark, crazy, zero probability shot at something. But nonetheless, the conservative strategy would have just been to match the cars around us and hope to pick up spots through the start or attrition or whatever. … I just think it comes down to if you have the car, any strategy that you go on can look pretty magical. But we just didn't have it today.”
Heading into the 2018 season finale at Sonoma Raceway, Rossi trailed Dixon by 27 points. Rossi finished seventh while Dixon finished second, giving Dixon the fifth championship of his career. Rossi said afterward that he felt like he gave the championship away.
This one, like 2018, required taking chances that didn’t turn out as intended. In the end, Rossi tipped his cap to Newgarden.
“We minimized a lot of our mistakes last year,” Rossi said. “Ultimately I think in one way or another, we gave Scott a championship. I think we didn't do that this year. I think just Penske and the (No.) 2 car specifically were stronger than us, and that's going to happen.
“You can't take away from the fact that Josef led all but one race this season. And from a sporting perspective, probably the right guy won. He came into this thing with a pretty big lead, and if it had gone away on double points, I would have loved it. But ultimately it probably wouldn't have been the outcome that should have happened. Josef did a great job, Simon did a good job there at the end, and we just were a couple points short.”
From his second-row starting position at Laguna Seca, Rossi knew he had to win to have a chance at the Astor Cup.
“You were trying to win, right, so you don't want to go backward,” he said. “At the end of the race when we knew that the championship was pretty much out of touch, it became about trying to close down on Simon. … For whatever reason, we didn't have the tire life that we needed. I think we were one of the better cars on blacks and were able to pull back a pretty big deficit, even on the final stop there after that restart. But our bed was kind of made after the first stint. It was pretty diabolical.”
Bottom line? Rossi and the No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Andretti Autosports Honda recorded another first-rate season, one that came down to risk-taking to surpass a front-runner for the championship. The gamble was the hope -- and the point -- but it didn’t reach its intent.
“We were pretty committed to trying to do something different,” Rossi said. “If we ended up third swinging, it was better than just being complacent and coming home second. It was a risk that didn't pay off, unfortunately. … It just wasn't meant to be.”