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Rossi Sets Sights On Championship

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 13 2018

Alexander Rossi will attempt to chase down Scott Dixon this weekend at Sonoma. (File photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Alexander Rossi says his three-year tenure in the Verizon IndyCar Series has been nothing short of an accelerated learning curve. And among the things the Andretti Autosport ace has learned is…do not poke/provoke the bear.

“To actually be going into this weekend with a goal in mind of trying to win the thing (championship) outright, it’s just a privilege,” said Rossi, referring to Sunday’s season-ending INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma. “It’s a privilege to be mentioned in the same sentence as Scott Dixon, to be able to race against someone of his caliber week-in and week-out, hopefully get the better of him.”

Rossi trails Dixon, the four-time series champion from Chip Ganassi Racing, by 29 points heading into Friday’s opening two rounds of practice around Sonoma Raceway’s 2.385-mile/12-turn permanent road course in Northern California. Team Penske’s Will Power and Josef Newgarden also are mathematically eligible for the championship, each 81 points behind Dixon. With 104 maximum points available at Sonoma, the championship is a near winner-take-all situation between the top two.

Rossi joined Michael Andretti’s team shortly before the start of the 2016 season and shocked the sport by winning the 100th edition of the Indianapolis 500 as an oval-track rookie. His 2018 season has featured three wins and eight podium finishes…and a whole bunch of self-evaluation.

“I mean, I think that every time you get in a car, you learn something new,” said Rossi, driver of the No. 27 Honda. “You’re trying to be better and learn from the people around you, your teammates, other drivers. I don’t know that there’s one area in specific. I mean, I just think you get better overall. The more time you have in the series with the car, the team, on track, you see upticks in performance.

Really, I think the big thing for us this year is just going back to a spec aero kit. It’s really leveled the playing field and taken away advantages that teams have had in the past, just given us some opportunity to show the mechanical capabilities of our car, the strength of the Honda engine, all of that.

“In ’16, I don’t really know that I knew what was necessary to win at all. I think that’s a little vague. But definitely from the beginning, probably middle of ’17, I started to see kind of the results of the engineering changes that we had made in the offseason, kind of the structure and methodology changes we made from ’16 to ’17, started to have concrete results on black and white paper. That’s when I started to think we were going to be able to do something great in 2018.”

The 29 points separating Dixon and Rossi is the fifth-largest margin with one race to go since 2006. The closest margin with one race to go was 2006, when Helio Castroneves led Sam Hornish Jr. by one point. The average deficit with one-to-go since 2008 is 20.3 points.

Dixon has seven top-five finishes in 13 Sonoma starts, including wins in 2007, 2014 and 2015. Rossi finished fifth in his first start at Sonoma in 2016 while Power has five podium results in nine starts, including wins in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Newgarden has one top-five finish at Sonoma. He recorded his best finish (second) in six starts in 2017.

Dixon’s clearest path to a fifth series championship is to finish first or second at Sonoma, where the winner earns 100 points and second place pays 80.

While Rossi will be chasing his first series title, Dixon will take the point lead into one-to-go for the fifth time in his stellar career. Dixon, who took the championship lead following his win in the annual June night race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, won championships in three of the previous four seasons in which he led with one race to go (2003, 2008 and 2013).

Sunday’s race, scheduled for 85 laps/202.7-miles, will mark the 13th consecutive year the series champion will be determined at the final event of the season. Additionally, the winning driver at Sonoma has claimed the championship three times in the prior 14 races _Dario Franchitti in 2009, Dixon in 2015 and Simon Pagenaud in 2016.

Rossi said all the hypotheticals will not prompt him to change his race strategy. “Yeah, definitely, you don’t change your approach,” said Rossi, a former Formula One test driver. “I mean, I’m going to win, I’m going to try to beat people, do exactly what we’ve been doing all year. That’s our only responsibility.

If we win, we’ve done our job right. If it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t really matter. We have to go into the weekend and do all we can do to maximize ourselves, our potential. We have had a car in contention to win a race probably 90 percent of this year. There’s no reason to change that now.”

Pagenaud won last year’s event after teammate Newgarden set the track qualifying record of 1-minute, 15.5205-seconds/113.691 mph in Round 3 of knockout time trials en route to the championship.

Eight rookies _ Santino Ferrucci, Pietro Fittipaldi, Jack Harvey, Colton Herta, Jordan King, Matheus Leist, Patricio O’Ward and Zach Veach _ are entered. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Robert Wickens, who will not race due to injuries sustained in an accident at Pocono Raceway, has clinched Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors for 2018. Native Mexican O’Ward, the 2018 Indy Lights champion, and Herta, who finished second in Indy Lights in 2018, will attempt to make their series debuts this weekend.

NBC Sports Network will televise one hour of Practice 1 at 4 p.m. (EDT) Friday (same-day delay) and another hour of Practice 2 at 6 p.m. (live). Qualifying will be aired at 8 p.m. Saturday (same-day delay). Sunday’s live race coverage will begin at 6:30 p.m.

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Fernando Alonso, the two-time Formula One World Driving Champion, tested Andretti Autosport’s No. 29 Dallara/Honda last week on the Barber Motorsports Park road-course. Alonso, who will exit his fulltime F1 ride with McLaren at season’s end, is rumored to be moving to INDYCAR with Andretti’s team fulltime in 2019. While Alonso earned Rookie of the Year honors while driving for Andretti at the 2017 Indianapolis 500, speculation continues whether a Honda or Chevrolet-powered team will land the superstar.

Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development, said the newly-minted 2018 series manufacturer champion’s lineup is “pretty much set” right now.

“With that being said, having Fernando Alonso come to the IndyCar Series _ someone that’s recognized as one of the best drivers in the world _ that would bring a lot of media attention,” St. Cyr said during a national teleconference earlier this week. “I think having him join the most competitive race series around would be fantastic for the series.

Now, I think it might be a little bit premature because personally I don’t know what his plans are right now, whether it’s a full season in INDYCAR, Indy 500 only. I know there’s already some conflicts with his running in the WEC (World Endurance Championship for sports cars). I think right now I’d just kind of leave it as we’re waiting to see what their thoughts are at this point, and we’ll act accordingly.

To say that we haven’t had discussions would be a misnomer. There’s nothing saying that Alonso is even going to come to INDYCAR at this point. I think once Alonso decides their plans on that, we can decide from our side what we can do and what we can’t do given our engine supply and where we’re going forward with that one.”

No specifics were provided by Andretti Autosport on Alonso’s test on Barber’s 2.3-mile/17-turn layout in Birmingham, Ala. But Alonso described the session as “a good day, a fun day.”

“I love to test new cars and to test the Indy car on a road-course is something special,” Alonso said. “I’ve been lucky enough to test it in wet conditions, in intermediate conditions and in dry conditions, so overall I had a good feeling on every type of track.

“It was something that I was looking for last year already. I had some options to test the car on a road-course after the Indy 500. We didn’t have the time but this year it’s definitely happened now and I’m happy for this. I love being behind a steering wheel and definitely a new car, a new experience, learning a lot of things from the team, the engineers, everyone. So a happy day.”

Alonso, 37, made his F1 debut in 2001 and has been on the grid every year since 2003, including the last five with the organization founded by Bruce McLaren. But in pursuit of the “Triple Crown” of motorsports, the Spaniard took on the challenge of qualifying and competing in the 2017 Indy 500.

This season, Alonso turned to sports car racing, driving for United Autosports in the IMSA Weather Tech SportsCar Series’ Rolex 24 at Daytona in January. In June, Alonso teamed with Kazuki Nakajima of Japan and Sebastien Buemi of Switzerland to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota Gazoo Racing. A two-time winner of F1’s prestigious Monaco Grand Prix, Alonso is one of 13 drivers to have won two legs of the “Triple Crown.”  

American Zak Brown, McLaren Racing’s chief executive officer, secured Alonso’s ride with Andretti Autosport at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at a time when the F1 team largely was uncompetitive. Alonso led his first oval-track race around the 2.5-mile IMS layout four times for 27 laps and was running eighth when sidelined by an engine failure. He finished 29th but was voted the race’s Rookie of the Year.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 13 2018
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