While a championship is still in reach for Alexander Rossi entering this weekend’s season finale at Sonoma Raceway, the result on Sunday will pale in comparison to immense strides made by the 26-year-old American driver in 2018.
In March we saw publications across the country tout Rossi as IndyCar’s newest title contender, the former Formula One driver now deemed ready to challenge the likes of Scott Dixon, Will Power, Josef Newgarden and other former champions.
For the first time in an IndyCar Series career that saw two victories – one in the 100th Indianapolis 500 – in his first two years, Rossi was faced with real pressure. No longer was there a hope to succeed, but rather, an expectation.
Officially joining the Andretti Autosport banner while switching to a new number for 2018, the season added heat and intensity in the very first round at St. Petersburg.
On the final restart of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Rossi utilized a fumbled command from race control to make a move on the race’s leader at the time, rookie Robert Wickens. As Rossi popped to the inside of the Candian driver he was consumed by the rubber marbles which had gathered for over 70 laps.
When the two drivers reached Turn 1 they made contact as Rossi slid into Wickens, with the No. 6 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda ending up in the wall and Rossi’s NAPA Auto Parts Honda dropping to 3rd.
Immediately it was Rossi who was deemed the aggressor in the situation as fans sided with Wickens, the man jockeying for a win in his first IndyCar race. Defending his move, Rossi stepped off of the podium and inferred that Wickens should not dodge blame for making a secondary blocking maneuver before the infamous first turn accident.
For the moment, IndyCar had its bad boy in an incredibly unexpected fashion. Rossi – for the most part – had kept his nose clean and avoided major conflict for his first two years in the series. He added some fans by winning the landmark Indy 500 back in 2016 and remained relatively reserved during public appearances on and off the track.
During the offseason preceding 2018’s season opener at St. Petersburg, Rossi had an opportunity to break out of the mold generated by the public as he competed in season 30 of CBS’ The Amazing Race with friend – and fellow racer – Conor Daly.
Forming “Team IndyCar,” Daly and Rossi put their friendship and personalities on display for millions of Americans each Wednesday night.
While Daly has been touted as a fan favorite as a result of his outgoing and energetic nature, for the first time it was Rossi that had a chance to show his own character away from the race track.
In the end the duo would finish 4th in the 12-team competition, though the exposure would be worth much more than any check or trip to Curaçao.
Following St. Petersburg, Rossi would parlay finishes of 3rd at Phoenix and a dominating win at Long Beach to the top of the championship standings.
A chaotic, rain-soaked finish of 11th at Barber Motorsports Park would relegate Rossi to 2nd in the points entering the month of May at Indianapolis.
While visiting IMS has been a welcome sight for Andretti Autosport drivers in recent years, this edition of “May at Indy” was a bit more perplexing for drivers under the Andretti banner.
For Rossi in particular, he worked an 8th place starting spot into a 5th place finish at the INDYCAR Grand Prix before enduring a dreadful week of practice and qualifying that saw the Honda driver place 32nd in time trials.
What ensued was one of the more entertaining performances in recent Indianapolis 500 memory. Rossi would put on a show as he mounted an afternoon-long charge from the final row of the grid all the way to a 4th place finishing spot. His charge was punctuated by dramatic passes on the outside line, overtaking one, two, or three cars at a time.
If the California native had lost any fans after the Wickens incident back in March, he showcased enough brass on Memorial Day weekend to gain them all back plus interest.
A podium finish in race one of June’s Detroit doubleheader would vault Rossi back to the championship lead, though just for a day. A disappointing end to Detroit’s second race saw Rossi dominate with 48 laps led before a brake lock-up with seven laps remaining handed the victory to teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Finishing 12th, Rossi dropped to 3rd in the points in what would be the start of a frustrating string of summer races.
Despite a 3rd place run at Texas, Rossi would lose ground in the championship as Dixon took the victory. What followed would be three straight races where Rossi would qualify inside the top five and finish outside it, with results of 16th at Road America, 9th at Iowa, and 8th at Toronto.
“Leaving Toronto, we had three pretty rough weekends in a row with Iowa, Road America, and Toronto,” Rossi said earlier this month. “We knew that it was going to take something pretty special to get ourselves back in the fight.”
What has followed certainly fits that billing.
After falling to 3rd in the points following Toronto, Rossi clicked off masterful performances at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Pocono Raceway to secure two crucial back-to-back victories.
Across the two races, the third-year veteran would lead a total of 246 laps, dwarfing the total number of laps he had led in the season’s previous 12 races (133).
Rossi led four more laps before finishing runner-up to Power at Gateway on August 25, and was strong in IndyCar’s return to the Pacific Northwest on September 2 before untimely cautions caught the No. 27 Honda out of position. In Portland it was Rossi who led the most laps (32) as yellows relegated him to an 8th place result.
And now we arrive at Sonoma Raceway, the final race of the IndyCar calendar and what is going to be the final race for this series at this track for the foreseeable future.
The Kiwi leads The Californian by 29 points while Power and Newgarden cling to mathematical hopes at the championship.
While the scenarios to championship success are clear (Rossi must win while having Dixon finish 3rd or worse), the growth shown by Rossi this season is immeasurable for the future.
This year we have watched a formerly unpredictable week-to-week contender blossom into the bona fide championship threat that was forecasted back in the spring. Year three of an IndyCar career is a defining moment for most competitors, and Rossi has shouldered those expectations in resounding fashion.
Regardless of the outcome this weekend, IndyCar as a whole should feel grateful to have a talent such as Rossi’s in the fray for the future while Formula One foolishly whisked it aside.
With a strong run and just a hint of luck, it could be a championship arriving right on time for Rossi on Sunday.
Header image by Shawn Gritzmacher.