ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – Just three races into the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport entered Race 2 of the REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR Doubleheader on Sunday at Road America with no margin for error.
Three disastrous races to start the season had left the perennial championship contender 22nd in the series standings, 124 points behind leader Scott Dixon. With a season shortened to 14 races because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are less chances to make up points.
That made Sunday’s race so vital.
Rossi qualified 10th in the No. 27 AutoNation/NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda, narrowly avoided mayhem in the first turn on the first lap when separate incidents sent teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal off course.
From that point forward, Rossi raced his way up to third place to get on the podium for the first time this season.
2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Rossi hopes the finish is enough to turn around his season and get him back into the game.
“It's been a pretty nightmarish start for this whole team,” Rossi said. “The work ethic never wavered. The confidence, what we were capable of, never changed. It was just about going out there and having a smooth day.
“We were able to do that today.
“Ultimately, we're not here to finish third. To bounce back from the first three races, going into another doubleheader next weekend (at Iowa Speedway), it's positive to get at least a little bit of good momentum going in our direction.”
Second-year driver Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing scored his first career victory in a thrilling battle with Pato O’Ward in the closing laps. Rosenqvist’s Honda passed O’Ward’s Chevrolet in Turn 6 with just two laps remaining.
Swedish driver Rosenqvist went on to defeat Mexican driver O’Ward by 2.8699 seconds. Six seconds back was Rossi in third.
Rossi is fiercely competitive. Typically, a second-place finish leaves him frustrated. But he discovered the meaning of frustration in the first three races of 2020.
He started the season with an electronic issue that kept his car from starting before the start of the race June 6 at Texas. A fuel pressure issue in the July 4 GMR Grand Prix forced him to the sidelines after 41 laps. At the start of the race Saturday, he went off track and hit one of the sponsorship signs located around the track, forcing an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 2.
With three laps to go Saturday, Rossi banged wheels with Max Chilton’s Chevrolet, and his car was a mess. He finished 19th, one lap down to winner Scott Dixon.
Rossi needed to become a hero Sunday to keep this season from becoming a zero.
“We needed today,” Rossi said. “We suffered some mechanical issues yesterday. I made a mistake on Lap 1 that really put us back, ended our race from the beginning.
“I think overall our race pace was OK. We knew we had something. It was just about trying to put together for a whole 55 laps with no issues.
“Today, we were able to do that.”
Rossi believes the team still needs to find some overall pace in his car, but Sunday’s result was enough to improve him to 18th in the standings entering next Friday night’s first round of a doubleheader at Iowa Speedway.
“It’s a good step in the right direction,” Rossi said. “This AutoNation NAPA Andretti Honda team has had to do a lot of long nights, disappointing weekends. To get this is just a huge confidence boost for the whole team.
“Iowa is going to be a challenge for everyone. Another doubleheader. Rolling off and hopefully having no issues, having another race with no mistakes. We'll try to claw back what we've lost here in a couple days.”
Rossi still has a long way to go but has time to get there. He is 107 points behind Dixon. But another double-points weekend awaits the teams in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES at Iowa Speedway for the first short oval contest of the season.
Rossi was able to dust himself off, accept that the bad luck was part of this season and try to get it behind him. He took a major step in that direction Sunday.
“I think it's impossible not to be disappointed, discouraged,” Rossi said. “But I don't think it was ever a question of whether this team was capable of doing it. It just seemed to me everything that could go wrong went wrong. It was coming back each morning as a new day and trying to do your part, execute as best as you can.
“We made the most of today. Ultimately, I don't think we're bad. We're much better than the championship shows. It's just about going to Iowa, with the momentum that we have. At least it's something.
“Hopefully we can just get our season rolling from here starting today.”