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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.

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”