Late puncture halts Rossi’s impressive oval debut

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – You wouldn’t have known Alexander Rossi was making his oval debut in the Verizon IndyCar Series – or overall – based on his performance this evening in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.

Rossi only had had one brief test at the track, separate from IndyCar’s official preseason test in February, in mid-March.

On Saturday night, the driver of the No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda has the misleading stat line of starting and finishing 14th, because he ran close to the top five and on the lead lap most of the race.

On a day when passing was difficult, Rossi drove hard and ran as high as sixth on Lap 196, but then needed to take on a splash of fuel in a closed pit.

That meant he’d have to restart the next sequence at the back of the field for taking service in a closed pit.

It dropped him back to 14th, and as such, he wasn’t able to recover from there in the remainder of the race. A slow puncture on the last stint led to some debris on track and after slight contact in Turn 4, Rossi continued but INDYCAR threw the yellow flag on Lap 248. It meant the race ended under yellow.

“I think we need to look at it; I was in pits before they were closed, and we didn’t want to lose a lap,” Rossi told NBC Sports post-race.

“There’s some things we need to look at. Generally the race was good to us, with the car coming to me towards the end, but unfortunately we had a slow puncture on the last stint.

“I think all in all it was a positive day for my first oval. I know we could have easily been top-10, and maybe top-five. So ending 14th is disappointing.”

Rossi admitted on Friday that he felt there was more to come after his qualifying run, which he didn’t feel happy with, and said he’d be better in the race. The words proved prescient.

“I figured today’s race would be good. Qualifying was unrepresentative and given what we were capable of, today was, pretty much as expected, to be honest,” he said.

“It was very hard to pass,” he added. “Restarts were the only opportunity. It was hard to find another line.”

As was the case for fellow first-year driver Conor Daly in St. Petersburg, the result did not match the drive for Rossi, and may prove a positive harbinger of things to come from here.