Alexander Rossi

When Alexander Rossi reflects on finishing second to Scott Dixon in the 2018 NTT IndyCar Series championship, the Andretti Autosport driver realizes how he took an important step forward that bodes well for the future.

The 27-year-old Californian showed up at each race knowing he could win. In his previous two seasons, Rossi didn’t think that was always the case.

That’s why he sounds so much more confident in making a run at the title this season.

“We finished every race, so we didn’t have like catastrophic days,” Rossi said. “We had the same amount of wins as (Dixon, three) and I think the same amount of podiums (Dixon had nine, Rossi eight). But when I would finish like 11th, he would finish fourth. That’s just what he does. He’s won five championships for a reason. He’s one of the best that’s ever done it.

“In the past if I was in an opportunity to win, I had to win because I might not get that opportunity for four or 14 months,” the driver of the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda added. “But now, with the place that Andretti is at, the place I’m at, the place Honda is at, the cars being virtually the same this year to last year, if you’re having a day where you’re fourth or fifth, it’s OK because theoretically next week you should be just as strong.”

Rossi won three races (Long Beach, Mid-Ohio and Pocono) with one second, four thirds, a fourth and a fifth to push Dixon to the limit in a final-race showdown. Dixon finished second and Rossi placed seventh in the double-points INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma last September to provide the Chip Ganassi Racing champion with a 57-point final margin.

But Rossi was almost as consistent as Dixon, who was sixth or better in 15 of 17 starts. Rossi was ninth or better in 14 races. That Rossi knew he would always be in the hunt enabled him to drive more confidently and be more aggressive at times.

“It’s a lot easier to analyze risk in those situations because you know you’re always going to have a quick car,” Rossi said. “When you’re in the mindset of ‘I might not have a quick car for another year and I have to prove I’m capable of doing this,’ it’s a very different approach.”

Rossi burst onto the series scene in his rookie year by winning the historic 100th Indianapolis 500, but he finished 11th in the points. He constantly reiterated his goal to be more consistent, which he was in 2017, when he won at Watkins Glen and improved to a team-best seventh in the points.

Aside from contending for the 2018 title and winning three races, what Rossi might be most remembered for were his daring passes. He started 32nd of 33 cars in the Indy 500, so the mindset was to be aggressive. But he provided several highlight-reel moves by going outside and taking a high line to speed ahead of competitors.

On a Lap 145 restart, he passed two cars in Turns 1 and 2 to move up to ninth place. On a Lap 153 restart, he went high again and passed two cars in the first two turns to get to third place. He finished fourth – one spot behind Dixon in the double-points race – and lamented not being able to win again.

“It’s relative,” Rossi said of the bold passing maneuvers. “If you look at it from the outside, yeah, it’s high risk. But in the car, it was fine.

“It’s something that I’ve never felt out of my comfort zone. There were scenarios where we were kind of forced into that situation.”

He added about the Indy 500, “You can’t really go backwards from (starting 32nd). You might as well try something.”

Rossi won the Firestone Drive to the Finish Award for completing the most laps in the 2018 season: 2,366 of a possible 2,368 laps. He also made 321 total on-track passes, had 191 net passes and 151 passes for position – all series bests.

His appreciation for winning the Indy 500 on his first attempt has continued to grow and is added motivation to do it again.

“Every year that goes by without winning it, the desire to win goes up even more, if that’s possible,” he said. “It’s a unique race from that standpoint. You win another race in Barber for example, OK, cool, you check the box. If you win again, cool, that’s great.

“Whereas the 500, if you actually get a taste of (winning) it, you want it even more than if you haven’t won just because you don’t want anyone else to get all the cool things that come along with it.”

Race fans are sure to be keeping a close eye on Rossi in each race this season. And he’ll show up knowing he’s among the race favorites at each stop.

“It doesn’t matter where you are, you’re trying to win every single race you’re at,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re racing in a parking lot in go-karts. All of us show up trying to beat each other.”

The 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season kicks off with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10 (12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).