DiZinno: Shock finish matches Rossi’s unpredictable, improbable rise

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INDIANAPOLIS – Some five years ago, May 29, 2011, I was less than a month shy of turning 22 years old. I’d just graduated college. I really didn’t know what I was doing with my life, other than I wanted it to involve some combination of racecars and writing.

I stood along the wall in the media center, watching in aghast shock as JR Hildebrand, a rookie, hit the wall out of Turn 4 in the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 (but 95th running) and Dan Wheldon swept through – out of nowhere – to win the race in the No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda.

Sunday, May 29, 2016, I stood along the wall in the media center… watching in aghast shock as Alexander Rossi, a rookie, crawled at little more than a snail’s pace – 179.784 mph for the last lap – to make it home to the checkered flag and win the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in the No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda.

OK, so technically the team name is now Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian. The title sponsor has changed from William Rast to NAPA Auto Parts. And this time, the rookie American driver made it home and the second and third place finishers suffered heartbreak.

But man, other than those minor technicalities, history has a damn fine way of repeating itself – even if the circumstances of how they happened couldn’t be further apart.

For Rossi, who at 24 becomes the youngest and first Indianapolis 500 champion under 25 since Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000 – and supplants Montoya as champion of this race – he might agree that heading into the 2016 season he really didn’t know what he was doing with his life, other than he wanted to be racing and not on the sidelines.

Much as Wheldon, the 2005 IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 champion, entered the two-timer club on a shock one-off win that year, Rossi became the first rookie to win in 15 years thanks to a perfect run on fuel strategy that saw him miraculously hit his fuel number to make it home 36 laps without a final stop.

Yet the final stint is but the latest chapter in the incredible story of how team and driver even came together before this season began, under abnormal circumstances.

Little more than three months ago, Rossi didn’t have a ride. Any ride.

And Bryan Herta barely had a team, after a reportedly ghastly sponsor loss.

Rossi was well positioned for a long overdue full-season seat in Formula 1, before Indonesian rookie Rio Haryanto bought it out from underneath him at Manor.

Meanwhile the driver Herta had done nearly everything he could to keep during the offseason – Gabby Chaves – would become a casualty of the situation through no fault of his own as Herta and Michael Andretti made an 11th hour deal to partner for this year and get Rossi on board. Herta was asked whether he found him but it was Andretti who had.

“We followed his career all the way through when he was in Formula 1 and Formula 3 even, all the way through,” Andretti said post-race. “He was our hot, young American prospect to be in Formula 1. He finally achieved his goal last year, which was awesome.”

Alas, it led to some consternation because it meant Chaves, the 2015 race and series rookie-of-the-year, was left sidelined and Rossi, a guy who hadn’t always given off the impression he wanted to be in IndyCar first, had a coveted spot at one of IndyCar’s three most competitive and storied franchises.

“It’s amazing. I got to say, we had such a weird off-season,” Herta explained post-race. “This partnership with Michael and his group kind of came out of a set of bad circumstances. I told him on the parade lap there, I said: ‘Thank you so much.’ Without him, I’d have been watching this one on TV.”

Frankly, it was controversial at the time. I’m not sure I helped matters any with a preseason column I wrote where I wondered about whether Rossi’s focus would be fully in IndyCar, given the substantial competition and his decision to balance his commitments with a reserve role at Manor in F1.

Yet what I realize today, as I decide what flavor of humble pie to order and what coffee choice I should pick from Alaska Coffee Roasting – one of Rossi’s long-time sponsors – is that I have only just understood how good of a driver Alexander Rossi truly is.

It’s not that I didn’t see what he could do in his European junior formula career. Far from it.

When you consider that Rossi moved his life away from America in pursuit of his Formula 1 dreams – not an easy decision, nor an easy journey – it was always going to take time to make an impression. And I’m sure that being, really, the only legit American abroad in pursuit of F1 didn’t help matters either… he had the pressure of an entire country’s hopes and dreams riding on his shoulders.

Rossi in Austin last year.s. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Rossi in Austin last year. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

When he finally made it to his five grand prix starts with Manor last year, I was overjoyed. He had had several would-be grand prix debuts pulled out from under him through no fault of his own – as many as five in 2014. Among other solid drives, he recorded arguably the most memorable 12th place finish in recent memory at Circuit of The Americas, in Austin, at his home grand prix.

“That’s a long journey,” Rossi said.

Then it all stopped, abruptly. And to me, and to others in the IndyCar paddock at the start of the season, it initially felt like Rossi’s trip here was merely a stopgap on the way back to F1.

But what has followed in the last three months has been a tour de force of determination, improvement and – most importantly – a relentless focus to succeed and silence the doubters.

Quickly, Rossi and his family have begun to understand just how deep the IndyCar field is. His dad Pieter has been by his side at every opportunity to understand it as well. Andretti Autosport’s early season struggles bared that out.

But signs were evident they were eventually going to be a factor from the first oval race at Phoenix and the most recent race at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Rossi at Phoenix. Photo: Getty Images.
Rossi at Phoenix. Photo: Getty Images

He’d run top-10 most of the day in Phoenix before shuffling back on pit stops and incurring a late-race puncture in his first ever-oval event. At the latter event, Rossi set race fastest lap and spoke of how the expectations had shifted to where he was now disappointed with 10th, when a month earlier 10th would have been a good result.

“Really the Indy GP for us was a big step forward in terms of confidence, kind of a general understanding of where we were at,” Rossi said.

“To carry that forward into all the practice, qualifying, and now this, it’s phenomenal. It’s just a huge testament to the great people I have around me.”

Then Rossi arrived at the Indianapolis oval and took to the place like a duck to water.

Rossi just delivered one of the best months in recent Indy history for a rookie, if not one of the best ones overall. His lines were clean and consistent all month; his speed right on par with his teammates.

Rossi's early laps at Indy. Photo: IndyCar
Rossi’s early laps at Indy. Photo: IndyCar

You simply don’t come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a first-timer – for your second-ever oval start – and rock up, run a clean, consistent month, then win the race on debut.

Yet Rossi did, aided by the combination of the five-car team, an ace engineer in Tom German who’d won this race twice before with Team Penske (Gil de Ferran in 2003, Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006), Herta’s strategy and a calm, levelheaded focus throughout the month to not be distracted by the magnitude of the place, the magnitude of the moment.

With tears flowing inside his helmet as he crossed the line Sunday, and with the world that had followed his path to F1 in tears as the American kid they rooted for along with him, only then could the magnitude of what was achieved be able to sink in.

“It won’t sink in for a while. I don’t want it to,” Rossi said.

“I want to enjoy this moment, enjoy it with the people around me. It’s obviously a huge honor and privilege, something I’m going to carry with a great sense of responsibility.

“We need to really push this forward. It was an incredible event for the hundredth running of the Indy 500. We need to do everything in our power to continue the momentum forward, make it even bigger next year.”

In one answer to one question, Rossi has just suddenly shifted the narrative.

For a Californian who adopted the European lifestyle in living over there for nearly a decade, he’s come home to Indianapolis, back to the U.S. To mention the words “next year” in the press conference is huge.

It creates the impression that in just three months, Indy has made a positive impact on Rossi after all. His first month of May was different – certainly – than most race events but once in the car, he knew he could deliver.

“It was busy. I was very happy to get in the racecar at 12:03 today,” Rossi laughed and admitted post-race. “Finally I can go do this and I don’t have to talk about it anymore, but here I am talking about it.”

He also headed into the race knowing he could win. He probably should have made the Fast Nine Shootout last weekend, bumped out only by a one-second gap when Mikhail Aleshin snuck in, but he knew early on a win from 11th was possible.

“Every time I get in a racecar, I want to win. I was incredibly disappointed with 11th. A lot of people were expecting me to be happy with it. There was a bit of criticism that I wasn’t happy with 11th as a rookie. Well, I’m here to win. That’s the goal I have every single time I get in a racecar,” he said.

Rossi leads Tagliani and Hinchcliffe. Photo: Getty Images

From Lap 5, Rossi thought he had a car that could pull off the upset.

“Probably Lap 5, if I’m honest. I had a bit of a conservative start. I was able to overtake cars. I was overtaking big cars,” he said.

“I knew if that was the case, we definitely had the opportunity to go forward. There were a couple setbacks we had, pit stops that put us back. We had to come forward again. Every time we fell back, we were able to come forward. I knew we were strong, the pace was there, we were able to pass cars, follow cars. It wasn’t much of an issue.

“That’s why I mentioned the emotional rollercoaster because I knew we had a car that was good enough to win. When you see yourself on the pylon, 29th, whatever, you’re like, ‘This isn’t great.’

“Yeah, I mean, it was kind of through the whole race. I just made sure the overtakes I did were necessary and strong.

“It was a culmination of a lot of things that got us there.”

And that takes us back to the final stint, and after Rossi had had a taste of the lead for the first time on Lap 122 and again from Lap 129 to 137, he had two pit stops to make it home, and Herta’s call to pit on Lap 164 was the winning one.

It would only work if the race stayed green – which it did.

One by one the would-be contenders around him fell by the wayside. Teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell crashed on pit road. JR Hildebrand hit Helio Castroneves’ rear wheel pod. James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan were close-ish in terms of their car potential but fell back late.

And then Carlos Munoz and Josef Newgarden, arguably the two strongest cars in the field late on, peeled off in the final five laps needing a splash of fuel.

Rossi in disbelief. Photo: Getty Images

Rossi didn’t, and that fuel saving job he delivered in the last stint will enter Indianapolis lore in the annals of history. Herta’s sage advice is what helped get him there.

“It was just patience. Bryan kept reminding me the way we were going to win this race was by hitting the fuel number,” Rossi explained. “It was very difficult because obviously I had at the time cars in front of me that I knew I was quicker than.

“Throughout the whole race we were overtaking cars. It was very hard to then not do that, look big picture.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do that without Bryan on the radio and offering the support and wisdom that I needed.”

Shock was the word of the day as it happened. But indeed, it happened.

“Did I imagine it would happen? No,” Rossi said.

“Did I want it to happen and was I working for it to happen? Absolutely. I was glad we were able to make it all come true.”

Chase Sexton wins Triple Crown Anaheim 2 Supercross: Levi Kitchen unseats Jett Lawrence in 250s

Supercross Anaheim 2
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Chase Sexton won two of the three races in the Monster Energy Supercross Anaheim 2 Triple Crown, which was enough to overcome a fifth-place finish in Race 2 and give him the overall victory. It was the second Supercross win of his career.

“Super big night for me,” Sexton told NBC Sports’ Will Christien. “After last weekend with that being a struggle, I just need to come out here and stop the bleeding a little bit and I did that tonight.”

Sexton suffered a crash on Lap 1 of his heat, sending him into Last Chance Qualifier. The bad gate pick put him in a difficult position to start the race and he was able to climb to only fifth at the checkers.

At Anaheim 2, three riders entered the final race of the Triple Crown in a winner-take-all scenario. Sexton, Jason Anderson and Eli Tomac each had a shot at victory. It raised the intensity level for all riders in an evening that featured a lot of comers and goers.

Jason Anderson took the early lead in Race 3, which set him up for the overall victory. Sexton stalked and passed him midway through the race and then a minor mistake late allowed Webb to slip around as well. Anderson’s 5-1-3 gave him second overall.

“I had a tough couple of rounds, getting off that Anaheim 1 crash and then last week weekend I fumbled a little bit, but I’m excited to get back on the box and start moving forward,” Anderson told Jason Thomas.

Anderson finished seventh in the first two rounds of 2023.

RESULTS: How they finished for the 450 Main in Anaheim 2

Ken Roczen was the model of consistency in the opening rounds and at Anaheim 2. In three races so far this year, he’s gotten progressively better each time with a fifth in A1, a fourth last week in San Deigo and a third this week.

With results of 2-3-4, he earned his first podium of the season, which lands him fourth in the standings.

“This was hard earned,” Roczen said after the race. “I completely botched the start and then to have to work my way up. I only happen on the very last lap to step up here on the podium.”

Webb’s solid second-place finish in the third race allowed him to leapfrog several riders and finish fourth overall, but a seventh in Race 1 kept him off the podium. He improved in each race in Anaheim, however, with a 7-4-2.

With a 4-6-5, Dylan Ferrandis rounded out the top five.

The intensity of the race was a little too much for Tomac.

While battling side-by-side with Webb in Race 3 at the one-third mark, Tomac jumped wide and crashed hard. He fell to 14th, doing some damage to his bike in the process. He advanced only one position in that race to 13th. His first two races, a third and second, were strong enough to give him sixth overall. He retains the points lead, but it has shrunk to a gap of only four over Sexton and Webb.

Malcolm Stewart injured late in the week and was not able to mount.

Levi Kitchen became the first rider to unseat Jett Lawrence in the Triple Crown format at Anaheim 2 and won the overall with consistency. In his three races, Kitchen finished 4-2-2 to narrowly edge the winner of the first two races.

“This whole day; this is unbelievable. I took a few good slams in practice and I was down on myself,” Kitchen told NBC Sports Jason Thomas afterward. “The first moto I got a good start and got shuffled back, then I knew I just needed to be consistent.”

Jett Lawrence saved his best for last – which wasn’t hard given the struggles he experienced in the first two races.

Despite those problems, he entered Race 3 of the Triple Crown three points behind Kitchen after suffering a pair of disappointing races by his personal measuring stick. In the first and second 250 races of the night, Lawrence hit the ground. He dropped to the final rider in the running order in Race 2 with a Lap 1 fall. But in both races, he was able to overcome his mistake and close the gap so that he had a chance to take his first Triple Crown win of his career.

Click here for full 250 West Main Results

Lawrence rode to third in Race 1 and sixth in Race 2. In the final race of the night, Lawrence did all he could. He earned the holeshot, but when Kitchen fell in behind him, Lawrence’s fate was sealed. His 3-6-1 tied him in points with Stilez Robertson, but the tiebreaker goes to the final round and his win secured second-place.

“I can definitely say Triple Crowns are not my thing,” Lawrence told NBC Sports Will Christien. “We have one more to try and fix this, so hopefully we can get that done.”

Lawrence will move into the 450 class for the Lucas Oil Motocross outdoor season and his 250 record book will be closed.

The best news for Lawrence is the other riders who entered this round in the top three had a worse night, so Lawrence leaves Anaheim with a 16-point gap on Cameron McAdoo and 17 over RJ Hampshire.

Roberston finished 6-1-3 to take the final step of the podium.

“Getting that win in the second Main meant a lot,” Roberston told Thomas. “I wish I could have done a little better in the third one, but we’re still up here on the box.”

Mitchell Oldenburg used consistency to earn fourth in the overall. He finished 5-4-6.

After missing the Main last week in San Diego, Max Vohland finished 7-8-4 to round out the top five.

RJ Hampshire set himself up as the early favorite with his Race 1 win. In Race 2, it all fell apart. He fell in the sand section and damaged his bike, finishing last in that race. The final event of the night for the 250s provided only a 13th-place finish, leaving Hampshire deep in the points.

Cameron McAdoo hard crash in qualification, which was scary news for a team that has seen three of their riders sidelined with injury. McAdoo was never quite able to get his rhythm with an 8-7-5.

2023 Race Recaps

San Diego: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence double down
Anaheim 1: Tomac wins opener for the first time

Anaheim 2 coverage

Power Rankings Week 2
SuperMotocross tightens playoff schedule
Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence go two-for-two in San Diego
Results and points after San Diego
Seth Hammaker to miss 250 E season opener with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner with injury
Injury sidelines Austin Forkner for remainder of 2023 SX