It didn’t net him a victory, but Alexander Rossi’s drive in the Desert Diamond West Casino Phoenix Grand Prix was likely the drive of the night.
After starting fourth, Rossi quickly moved into third and stayed there through the opening stint, behind Simon Pagenaud and race leader Sebastien Bourdais.
However, Rossi’s night took a dramatic turn in the opening round of pit stops after a Lap 41 caution for Pietro Fittipaldi, who stopped in Turn 1 after brushing the wall. During the stops, both Rossi and Bourdais slid into their pit stalls and each clipped a member of their respective pit crews.
Both drivers were assessed drive-through penalties and fell off the lead lap and outside the Top 20.
Yet, while Bourdais struggled the rest of the night and finished one lap down in 13th, Rossi put on maybe the best drive of his career.
Without the aid of a caution, Rossi carved his way through the field to unlap himself, and cracked the top 10 after the last round of green flag pit stops.
He then made quick work of people like Takuma Sato, Ed Carpenter, Tony Kanaan, and Ryan Hunter-Reay to climb up to sixth in the closing stages, and had even worked his way up to the lead group before the final caution – for a crashed Ed Jones on Lap 230.
Andretti Autosport elected to keep Rossi out rather than pit for fresh tires, which put him in third on the final restart with seven laps to go.
Though he lost a spot to Josef Newgarden, Rossi gained that position back after passing James Hinchcliffe, and ultimately ended a roller coaster night in third, mirroring his result from the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last month.
Rossi’s charge back through the field featured a number of aggressive moves, and he totaled 53 passes for position on the night. As he explained afterward, the aggression was necessary to make up for his early mistake.
“We had to. We were two laps down. No yellow coming to save us. We had to unlap ourselves and try to do something,” he asserted in the post-race press conference.
Rossi also gave an enormous amount of credit to his No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda team, revealing that his performance came down to the car’s strong pace.
“I mean, I don’t care how frustrated or how much you want to pass cars, if you don’t have the car to do it, then you’re not going to do it,” he detailed. “The only reason I was able to do that was because the team gave me an unbelievable car.
“We spent so much of our time and brain effort and research in the time between the open test and here on focusing on tire life. Hopefully it’s something that we can keep an advantage on people going forward for the next short ovals.”
Rossi’s back-to-back third-place finishes have him second in the championship after two races, five points behind ISM Raceway winner Josef Newgarden.