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Catching up with Alexander Rossi: On testing, the season, the future

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Looking at the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil champion Alexander Rossi’s season only in the context of “Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi” fails to properly measure what he’s done, achieved and learned in his first full-time race season back in North America since 2008.

And as Rossi heads into a busy test cycle along with a number of his Verizon IndyCar Series compatriots in the next week – he’ll test tomorrow at Pocono, Monday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and next Thursday at Watkins Glen International – he’s more focused than ever on finishing his maiden IndyCar season strong to have better results beyond his two best ones on ovals.

“This year’s been a refreshing surprise (with the level of camaraderie),” Rossi told NBC Sports. “It’s what makes this championship fun to be part of.”

Rossi is one of only four drivers (teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal) scheduled to test in all three of those test days, and his inclusion in Monday’s Firestone tire test at IMS is very important to note.

Firestone ordinarily doesn’t bestow tire test duties on rookies, but Rossi’s participation and feedback was impressive enough from his first tire test at Watkins Glen to have merited him being included at IMS.

Sure, being the ‘500 champion doesn’t hurt – but as anyone who followed Rossi throughout the full month of May would know, he was seriously on form from the time he took his first laps.

Rossi admitted the honor at being asked back for another tire test, alongside Hunter-Reay, Dixon, Rahal, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ed Carpenter – all of whom have been in the sport since the 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s.

“It’s great. And yes, it’s something that started happening after May … I don’t think that’s coincidence,” Rossi said. “But it puts me in the car more and gives us more opportunity to work on our deficiencies, plus help on feedback. It’s been very positive and I’m very proud to be asked.”

Rossi’s test at IMS next Monday will be his first time in a car at IMS since his ‘500 race win. However it’s not the first time he’ll have been back at the Speedway, since.

The 24-year-old Californian was one of a number of IndyCar drivers who took in part of NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 weekend and as Rossi explained, it was beneficial in several ways.

“It was my first NASCAR race (on site); I hadn’t seen one before,” Rossi said. “It was cool! I would love to see another one. I was pretty entertained.

“It was great to be there with NAPA Racing. We did quite a bit. They have the local division NAPA – Balkamp – and I’ve got to know them there really well.

“The head of Balkamp (Tip Tollison, President of NAPA Balkamp) has become a friend of mine. He came to Mid-Ohio in his motorhome, and he’s been to other races even though they haven’t been on the car.

“It’s a very positive relationship. Hopefully it leads to something in the future.”

And there’s those words – “the future” – two words which seem to swirl around Rossi on an annual basis and particularly more this year given his primary IndyCar focus while also maintaining a reserve role with Manor Racing in F1.

He wouldn’t be available for any Manor F1 race appearances until after the Singapore Grand Prix on Sept. 18, a date which is the IndyCar season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Rossi doesn’t expect to make a formal decision about 2017 until the end of this season – or at least publicize one – owing to the fact he wants to end his first IndyCar season a higher note.

“I’m sure you know from me at this point that I’m only focused on what’s on track at this point,” Rossi said. “We have Pocono next, and the question becomes how are we better and how are we going to win?

“On the whole, yes, there’s conversations that are had. It’s that time of year – and as ever, it’s an unknown.

“There’s lot of positives this year. I’ve enjoyed my time in the Verizon IndyCar Series, driving for Andretti, and I have a lot of good things to say about it. What it means about the future, I don’t know.

“With how busy the schedule is, it’s tough to make a full decision before the end. There haven’t been serious enough conversations. There could be something after Sonoma.”

The Andretti Autosport team made a bit of progress at Mid-Ohio last weekend, but a fuel probe issue hampered Rossi’s momentum after he’d climbed from 12th to eighth in the opening stint in the No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda.

In the final four races there are still boxes to be checked to end the season on a high note.

With the 14th place finish at Mid-Ohio, Rossi fell out of the top 10 in points for the first time since that Indianapolis 500 win, when he’d vaulted from 17th to sixth.

He’s now 11th on 316 points, only two points behind Charlie Kimball in 10th – yet he’s only 57 points out of third place, currently held by Helio Castroneves. It’s funny the gap for those eight spots is so small, because Will Power sits second in points, 58 behind points lead Simon Pagenaud.

Rossi also made it out of Q1 for the first time since the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May, equaling his season-best start on a road course of 12th.

He’s also in search of a second win, podium or top-five – sixth at Iowa is his best result outside of the Indy win.

Given how strong he was at Indy and how well he’s adapted to ovals, he should be good at Pocono; he starred early at Texas before losing the rear tires; he’s tested at Watkins Glen and he has a small amount of experience at Sonoma.

This weekend marks only the third weekend off from a race track for Rossi since the week before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April (April 10). Between IndyCar dates and two Grand Prix trips to Sochi, Russia (May 1) and Speilberg, Austria (July 3), the only weekends Rossi hasn’t been at a track since were May 8 and June 19.

“I knew it’d be busy, but I’ve had no issue with that,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the rest of it. Obviously the Pocono test, then Indy test, Glen test. It’s still pretty flat out.

“(At Texas), we learned why we had big issues early. The pace was pretty good before the rear tires fell off. I was as high as third, and Carlos (Munoz) was on pole. Package was strong. We know what we have to not have the moments we had. I don’t want to go through that again. I’m glad we made it through.”

There’s been a couple other notable moments for Rossi this year and one of the cooler parts for him occurred this weekend at Mid-Ohio, when he presented team co-owner Michael Andretti with his winning helmet from Indy.

“It was my dad (Pieter) and my idea,” he said.

“That race changed my career and life. So it was appropriate.

“Michael had called me in mid-February out of the blue. So it was good to give them the recognition.”

Lewis Hamilton receives Daytona 500 invitation from Bubba Wallace

Lewis Hamilton Bubba Wallace
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Lewis Hamilton is a fan of the new NASCAR Cup Series team formed by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan to field a car for Bubba Wallace.

Will the six-time Formula One champion also be a fan in person at a NASCAR race in the near future?

Wallace is hoping so.

After Hamilton tweeted his support Tuesday morning about the news of a Hamlin-Jordan-Wallace team making its debut with the 2021 season, Wallace responded with a sly invitation to the Daytona 500.

Much would need to be worked out, starting with how much garage and grandstand access would be afforded for a 2021 season opener that likely would occur during a still ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But it would seem fitting given that Hamilton and Wallace have been two of the world’s most outspoken Black athletes about the quest for diversity and racial justice. Hamilton recently reaffirmed his commitment to activism after his donning a Breonna Taylor shirt sparked an FIA inquiry.

The idea of Hamilton attending the season opener already had legs, too. The Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 driver has expressed a desire to race the Daytona 500 after he has retired from Formula One.

He was a spectator (with racing legend Mario Andretti) at four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s final Cup race as a full-time in the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2011, Hamilton swapped cars with three-time champion Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen International.

Having rubbed shoulders with other racing greats so often, it only would be fitting if Hamilton — who is one victory from tying Michael Schumacher’s career record and also could tie the F1 record with a seventh championship this season — spent some time with the greatest basketball player of all time.

Jeff Gordon was flanked by Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton before the 2015 Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).