A field of 25 cars took to Sonoma Raceway's 2.385-mile racetrack for Sunday’s IndyCar finale. And when the checkered flag waved, Alexander Rossi finished in seventh, collecting his 30th career top-10 finish and 14th of the season.
Heading into finale weekend 29 points behind Verizon IndyCar Series championship leader Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi and the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS team had their mind set on a solid qualifying effort to position themselves for a potential championship-winning drive. After a tire gamble in Q3, Rossi took the sixth starting spot for Sunday’s 85-lap race.
When Sunday’s race went green, the eventful starts that have plagued IndyCar all season unfortunately involved Rossi. He made contact with teammate Marco Andretti, damaging the front wing, puncturing a tire, and forcing the five-time race winner into the pits early. Suddenly Rossi was in last place with 83 laps to go.
"It was unfortunate because I thought we got a good start," Rossi said of the contact with Andretti heading up the hill into Turn 1. "Just two cars going for the same spot type of thing."
Coming out of the pits just in front of the leaders, Rossi was able to stay on the lead lap and charge to the cars at rear of the pack. After the second pit stop, Rossi came out behind leaders, but was able to pass both Dixon and Hunter-Reay to place himself back on the lead lap.
After pitting for a third time on Lap 43, Rossi caught a break when a yellow flag came out for Graham Rahal stopped on track. When the pits opened, the team called in Rossi for a fuel top-off and a fresh set of Firestone Red (alternate) tires.
Similar to his masterful passes in Phoenix and Indianapolis this season, Rossi ran all-out, passing multiple cars in front of his hometown crowd. He went from 20th to seventh position in just six laps. After a short stint, the NAPA Racing team took a gamble to come into the pits early for the final time, hoping Lady Luck would provide a second caution.
“The team did an amazing job of getting us back to a point where we could at least be in contention if something did happen to Scott,” said Rossi. "I knew it was probably a 1 percent shot at getting anything done at the end of the day. I just tried to attack it, move up as many positions as we could.”
But as the laps dwindled down, so did the young Californian’s chance at winning his first championship. When the checkered flag waved, Hunter-Reay collected the win and Dixon came home a safe second. Rossi finished seventh and settled for second in the championship after a hard-fought, season-long battle.
“Hats off to the whole 27 NAPA team,” said Rossi. “It was a great day for Andretti Autosport with Ryan winning, so it’s very unfortunate what happened in Turn 1 on Lap 1. It’s a situation I’m sure we’ll all replay a lot of times but, at the end of the day, it’s been a good 2018 and I am very appreciative for all the support we’ve had this year.”
The 26-year-old never appeared outside of the top three in championship contention this season and finished the year with three wins, three pole positions, eight podiums and the most laps complete out of all drivers.
"We came pretty close and we’ll work on the things we need to be better on and come back stronger next year,” said Rossi. "Dixon’s the benchmark. He’s the five-time champion for a reason so he deserves it 100 percent and we’ll work very hard to come back and try to beat him next year.” With the achievement, Dixon moved ahead of Mario Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti - each of whom has four titles.
The 2019 IndyCar Series season will again consist of 17 races, opening for the ninth straight year with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10. The schedule includes a visit to a new track, Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, on March 24; the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca near Monterey, California, on Sept. 22; and is anchored by the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26.