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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.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.