Rossi caps dream weekend in Watkins Glen with first win of the year (VIDEO)

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Alexander Rossi took the biggest bite possible out of the Big Apple this weekend in the picturesque, Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, at Watkins Glen International.

On Friday, he announced a new contract with Andretti Autosport.

On Saturday, he scored his first Verizon IndyCar Series pole.

On Sunday, he led the most laps, controlled the pace of the race, rebounded from a changed fuel hose, saved fuel, yet still pushed hard, and defended against Scott Dixon to win his first race of the season. Ryan Hunter-Reay finished third.

The driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda continued his late-season surge – he’s now finished between first and sixth in each of the last five races – as he rolled to a key victory.

Meanwhile the IndyCar championship has turned on its head, following contact leaving pit road between Josef Newgarden and Sebastien Bourdais. Newgarden locked up the brakes exiting pit road and bounced of the armco, with Bourdais hitting the back of Newgarden’s car and leaving the championship leader in big trouble in the final 20 laps of the race.

Newgarden struggled to even make the flag, following repairs exerted by the Team Penske team get his No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet to the finish. He finished 18th, off the lead lap, for his worst finish since Texas (13th after an accident), and snapped a streak of finishing first, second or sixth in each of the last six races.

Although Newgarden still leads the championship, this now gives teammates Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud a realistic shot, along with Dixon, who now trails Newgarden unofficially by three points, in pursuit of his fifth title. The four drivers are unofficially covered by less than 40 points, Castroneves 22 back and Pagenaud 34 back, heading to the double points season finale in Sonoma in two weeks.

The race started with the field on Firestone’s wet weather tires but the threat of rain, which came earlier for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race, never materialized. Instead it featured a mad dash of drivers peeling into the pits after the race start to change onto dry weather slicks, most of whom went onto Firestone’s red alternate tires but with Rossi and Hunter-Reay going onto the black primary tires.

Castroneves emerged at the head of the queue after those pit stops, but Rossi got back in front after the next round, caused when teammate Takuma Sato slowed entering the Boot. Five drivers (Spencer Pigot, JR Hildebrand, Max Chilton, Marco Andretti and Jack Harvey) had pitted prior to the caution so moved forward to the front.

In this stanza, Rossi’s team encountered an issue as it needed to change its fuel probe, which was malfunctioning. And because Rossi hadn’t got all the fuel on board on his last stop, it forced him into an earlier next stop, which occurred on Lap 24.

This forced Rossi off sequence and dropped him down the order, but a minor miracle occurred a couple laps later thanks to his soon-to-be-departed teammate, Sato, again. Sato spun and resumed but INDYCAR called a full-course caution on Lap 27, which then forced the rest of the field back into the pits and helped Rossi, Chilton, and the Ed Carpenter Racing pair of Pigot and Hildebrand, who were also off sequence.

Rossi and Chilton were able to push deep enough into this stint to where they could make it home on one final stop while the Carpenter twins could not, both pitting before the scheduled “get home” lap of Lap 42.

The Newgarden incident then followed which put the race under another full course caution, and set up a final dash to the finish.

But Rossi beat Dixon in a straight fight to secure the victory.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Rossi’s win is the obvious, and along with Ryan Hunter-Reay it put two Andretti Autosport cars on the podium – a first for the team since the 2016 Indianapolis 500, also won by Rossi. … Graham Rahal and Will Power recovered from 10th and eighth starting spots to end fifth and sixth. … After tough seasons, two more Chip Ganassi Racing drivers in Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton banked top-10s in seventh and eighth, Chilton having defended well against Simon Pagenaud for eighth. … Carlos Munoz completed the top-10 for Foyt. … Jack Harvey finished 14th for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in his first road course race.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Newgarden leads this group, and 18th is his second worst finish of the year aside of 19th in the Indianapolis 500. … Sato brought out two cautions in a tough afternoon, with wastegate issues and a spin. … James Hinchcliffe brought out the first caution of the race with major gearbox issues, and ended 21st and last behind Tony Kanaan, caught up in the Newgarden/Bourdais contact.

NOTABLE: This win by Rossi snapped Team Penske and Chevrolet’s five-race win streak, in Chevrolet’s 100th race. … This was Honda’s first win since Road America (Dixon) and its first podium sweep since Detroit race one, when Rahal beat home Dixon and Hinchcliffe. … Dixon banks his sixth podium at Watkins Glen.

QUOTABLE: Rossi, on the win: “We had an issue in the beginning with some fuel, the fuel thing, but whatever. It doesn’t matter, the team recovered. We had the pace to do it, but it’s pretty amazing. It’s a huge team effort. I’ve talked about so much how much we’ve improved, I’m so happy we’re finally able to win.”

RESULTS

WATKINS GLEN, New York – Results Sunday of the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 3.37-mile Watkins Glen International, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (1) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 60, Running
2. (2) Scott Dixon, Honda, 60, Running
3. (7) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 60, Running
4. (6) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 60, Running
5. (10) Graham Rahal, Honda, 60, Running
6. (8) Will Power, Chevrolet, 60, Running
7. (5) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 60, Running
8. (19) Max Chilton, Honda, 60, Running
9. (12) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 60, Running
10. (11) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 60, Running
11. (14) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 60, Running
12. (13) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 60, Running
13. (15) Ed Jones, Honda, 60, Running
14. (18) Jack Harvey, Honda, 60, Running
15. (21) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 60, Running
16. (20) Marco Andretti, Honda, 60, Running
17. (9) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 60, Running
18. (3) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 58, Running
19. (4) Takuma Sato, Honda, 56, Running
20. (17) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 46, Contact
21. (16) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 5, Mechanical

Race Statistics:
Winner’s average speed: 118.865 mph
Time of Race: 1:42:03.9024
Margin of victory: 0.9514 of a second
Cautions: 4 for 9 laps
Lead changes: 8 among 6 drivers

Lap Leaders:
Rossi 1
Castroneves 2-14
Pigot 15-22
Rossi 23
Hunter-Reay 24-27
Rossi 28-42
Dixon 43-44
Newgarden 45
Rossi 46-60

Verizon IndyCar Series point standings: Newgarden 560, Dixon 557, Castroneves 538, Pagenaud 526, Power 492, Rossi 476, Rahal 466, Sato 421, Kanaan 375, Hunter-Reay 373.

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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