IndyCar: Alexander Rossi dominates at Mid-Ohio, cuts Dixon’s lead in points

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Pole-sitter Alexander Rossi dominated en route to victory in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Rossi led 66 of the race’s 90 laps, including the final 34 laps, capturing his second win of the 2018 season (also won at Long Beach). He finished a commanding 12.8285 seconds ahead of runner-up Robert Wickens to capture the fourth win of his IndyCar career.

It’s also the first time in Rossi’s three-season IndyCar career that he’s won more than one race in a season – and there are still four more races remaining for the Andretti Autosport driver to add to his 2018 wins mark.

“It’s what we needed,” Rossi told CNBC. “We said coming into this weekend that we had to execute for five weekends in a row. This is the start of that, hopefully.

“It was great strategy early today. We knew we could two-stop if we committed early and that’s what we did.”

Ironically, while doing a celebratory burnout, Rossi spun into the frontstretch grass and got stuck. He had to wait to be pulled out so he could move on to victory lane.

This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Will Power, finished third, leaving him still winless in his career at the 2.2-mile permanent road course in north-central Ohio.

Defending race winner Josef Newgarden finished right behind his Team Penske teammate in fourth, while points leader Scott Dixon rallied to finish fifth.

Dixon came into Sunday’s race with a commanding 62-point lead in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings over Newgarden and a 70-point lead over Rossi.

After Sunday’s race, Dixon leads Rossi by 46 points and has a 60-point edge over Newgarden.

“We’re thinking about (the championship), but we’re also focused on just race wins,” Rossi said. “We’ll take a very well-deserved break before Pocono (the next IndyCar race on August 19), we’ve been strong there the last two years and just try to do what we did today.”

Added Newgarden, “We did what we could to try and cover our bases with Scott and some of the other championship runners and it didn’t work out. For the most part, it just didn’t fall the way we needed it to. … It’s IndyCar racing. You can’t predict these perfectly every time.

“You make the best bet possible and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. It was an okay day. We gained some ground on Scott, which is good, and it tightens up the battle a little bit, but we need to make up more ground in the next race.”

Sebastien Bourdais rallied from the back of the field to finish sixth, followed by Ryan Hunter-Reay, Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal and Ohio native and IndyCar rookie Zach Veach.

Rossi regained the lead on Lap 50. By Lap 58, he had built a one-lap lead over Wickens and Newgarden. Rossi made his final pit stop on Lap 60, turning the lead over to Wickens, who still had one more pit stop himself.

Rossi finally regained the lead for the final time when Wickens pitted on Lap 66.

Among incidents in the race:

* While there were numerous incidents during the three practices and qualifying Friday and Saturday that brought about red flag stoppages, there were zero yellow caution flags in today’s race, a rarity.

* Pole-sitter Alexander Rossi almost caused a huge crash on the opening lap when appeared to he brake-check the field heading into Turn 1. Race Control officials reviewed the incident but chose not to penalize Rossi.

* Max Chilton, who started with a career-best sixth position, was sent to the back of the field after being assessed a drive-through penalty for tapping Takuma Sato. Sato did a 360-degree spun but did not hit any other car or wall at the end of the front straight in the Lap 2 incident.

Chilton went off-strategy and pitted on Lap 11 and suffered additional time when his team struggled on the pit stop wit a defective air gun to take his left side tires off.

All that combined led to Chilton falling to last in the 24-car field, where he finished.

* Déjà vu: Josef Newgarden passed Will Power at the end of the back stretch to win last year’s race, and then did it again Sunday to take the lead from Rossi on Lap 27. However, the lead was short-lived as Newgarden quickly came into the pits on the following lap. Rossi regained the lead, choosing to stay out for two more laps, hoping to make the finish on just two pit stops.

* Shortly after Rossi finally pitted, Robert Wickens took the lead on Lap 30 and quickly built up a 13-plus second lead over Will Power. Wickens pitted on Lap 40, turning over the lead to Power.

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Graham Rahal tries to get up to speed in IndyCar iRacing Challenge

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Although he’s just 31 years old, Graham Rahal has been driving an Indy car since the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he still a teenager.

When it comes to the virtual world, however, Rahal is an admitted “newbie.”

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver hopes to get up to speed in time to be competitive in Saturday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama virtual race. It’s part of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge and will be televised live by NBCSN at 2:30 p.m.

The six-time NTT IndyCar Series race winner got his virtual racing rig before last week’s American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International but was still learning the nuances of the iRacing platform. He started 12th and finished 14th out of 25 cars in the contest. The first 12 finishers were on the lead lap. Rahal was one lap down.

“I had never done it before,” Rahal said Friday. “At least it probably had been 10 years since I had driven any sort of sim. It’s addicting…rather addicting. Second of all, it’s bad for your marriage, but it’s a great way to kill a day of quarantine.

“But I think it’s been a big challenge just to get used to the way that you feel a car, the way that you drive a car in the sim, it’s all completely different than real life. To get used to that sensation, to get everything set up right is a huge part of it.”

Inside the cockpit of his No. 15 Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal feels at comfortable in his own element. It has taken him time to find that comfort level in the virtual world.

“For me it has been a challenge to just figure out the right settings, what to do from afar, too,” Rahal said. “Obviously you don’t have anybody here (at his home) that plays iRacing or anything to help you firsthand. It’s been a bit of a challenge; but I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Next up is Barber Motorsports Park, which in the real world is a very challenging course but it puts on some of the best road course racing on the real IndyCar schedule. Rahal believes it will also be quite a challenge on iRacing.

“I think Barber is going to be actually more difficult than Watkins Glen,” Rahal said. “The track has a little bit less grip than Watkins Glen did last week. Although everybody was still crashing at Watkins Glen, I think you can get away with more than what you can at Barber. In real life it’s that way, too.

“I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be fun.”

Rahal is married to former drag racing star Courtney Force. Both are playing it safe by staying home by statewide order from Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb. But Rahal still has to find the balance between husband and virtual race driver.

By contrast, some of the other IndyCar drivers are spending 10-12 hours a day practicing on iRacing.

“That’s the challenge,” Rahal said, responding to a question posed by NBCSports.com. “I could definitely spend way more time on it. My line to Courtney is, ‘Just give me two laps.’ Then, one hour and 45 minutes later I’m still sitting there. It’s frustrating.

“As Robbie Wickens said, the frustrating part is you go out, you put in a good lap, then it’s, ‘I need to go beat that.’ You spin and you spin, and you spin. Then you get mad. The competitiveness in you, two more laps, two more laps. You try to go and go and go.

“You sit there for hours and hours and hours.”

Rahal admits he can’t stay away from iRacing for long. He is genuinely curious and interested in seeing what the competition is doing.

“I go on pretty frequently to see what’s going on,” Rahal said. “A lot of guys are on all the time. Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais has been on a load, Tony Kanaan, Willie P (Will Power). I think everyone is enjoying it. But it’s a huge challenge.

“There are a couple of guys that are clearly quicker than everybody else, Will being one of those. I’m trying to figure out where and how to find the lap time. I’m telling you, it’s so different than reality in that way.

“But it’s been fun, man. I’ve enjoyed the challenge. It’s good for the exposure, good because people are paying attention. You can see it on our Instagram. If you look at the clicks or page views in the last seven days, they’ve been doubled since we started to do this stuff. While it’s great for that, it also does help kill a ton of time.”

These are unique times as the world has essential shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more and more humans are testing positive of the potentially deadly virus, the threat becomes more real.

It has also created a tremendous void as people try to find something to do to pass the long times of isolation.

By giving race fans a few hours of entertainment, even if it is virtual instead of real, then Rahal believes it’s worth it.

“I think a lot of people are just dying for something to do, something to watch,” Rahal said. “The competitiveness in all of us wants to see some sort of sport.

“I know there are other buddies like hockey players that are watching it because they just want to watch something. They need something to do. So, I think that’s a big part of it.

“I think it’s great that NBC Sports is covering it this weekend other than just being online. I think it will be tremendous to see how that turns out.

“This is very realistic. When you see the cars on track, you watch a replay, see the photos, it’s eerily real looking. I did a race at St. Louis last weekend. It was extremely entertaining I think for the drivers that were participating. Other than 400 yellow flags, which happened early in the race, it was really, really entertaining to be a part of. People who watched that race would have loved the show that they had been seeing. I think there’s a lot of realism to it.

“I think it’s also people just want something right now. The desire and the demand is there to log in or tune in and see something competitive on TV.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500