Rossi uses fuel strategy to gain ground on Dixon

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Much like the manner in which he won the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016, Alexander Rossi needed to utilize a big fuel-saving strategy in the final stint of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 to finish ahead of title rival Scott Dixon and gain more ground in the championship.

Rossi pitted under yellow on Lap 178 – his Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay came to a halt after suffering a fuel pressure issue, forcing the yellow – and restarted third on Lap 183. But, Rossi would need to stretch the fuel in a big way to make the finish.

With Dixon already ahead of him on the track at the time – Dixon restarted second – and passing proving difficult at Gateway Motorsports Park, Rossi and the No. 27 Napa Auto Parts Honda team decided their best shot at finishing ahead of Dixon was to go into fuel conservation mode.

In doing so, Rossi dropped back as far as eighth in the final stint as others went by, and he even dropped off the lead lap at one point, but when everyone started pitting for splashes of fuel, Rossi was able to vault back up the running order.

Although he ultimately had nothing for Will Power, who ended up taking the win, the strategy did allow Rossi to jump ahead of Dixon for second, and Dixon was unable to catch and pass him in the final laps.

“It was a huge ask when Rob (Edwards), my strategist, came over the radio and was like, ‘Make this fuel number.’ I was like ‘Here we go again,’ Rossi quipped to NBCSN’s Robin Miller afterward. “I couldn’t have done it without a great Napa Andretti Honda. I don’t know that we had enough for Will, even if it was a flat out race to the finish, but the important thing is we beat Scott and closed the gap a little bit.”

Rossi, emphasizing the challenge of conserving fuel, added, “It’s hard when everyone’s going by you. I know that theoretically they’re supposed to come back (to you), but when you’re short-shifting and lifting everywhere and just going really slow, it’s difficult to keep that. But, Rob, as always, talked me through it and made sure I was focused on the prize.”

Dixon, meanwhile, came home third after dominating the first half of the race, leading 145 laps. However, he was unable to pass Will Power after the Team Penske driver got by him on Lap 150, and cycled out behind Rossi after a late splash of fuel.

Though he finished third and led the most laps, it was still a frustrating night for Dixon.

“A bit of a bummer. I’m a little disappointed in myself,” Dixon lamented to NBCSN’s Anders Krohn. “We kind of got into no man’s land a bit on fuel saving. The team were like ‘We should go’ and I’m like ‘Are you sure?’ and Will got that big difference there.”

Dixon added, “The PNC Bank car was strong all night. The fuel that we were burning early on in the race didn’t hurt us because we had a reset (with the Hunter-Reay yellow). Just bummed. We lost only three points there, but ultimately we want to be stretching it.”

With two races remaining in the Verizon IndyCar Series season, Dixon’s lead over Rossi stands at 26 points and has been slashed since Dixon won the Honda Indy Toronto in July – he exited that weekend with a 62-point lead over then second place runner Josef Newgarden, and a 70-point lead over Rossi.

In the three races since, Rossi has used two wins and a second-place finish to cut 44 points out of the lead.

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Robert Wickens views iRacing debut as major milestone in recovery efforts

Dana Garrett/IndyCar
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This Saturday afternoon will mark an important milestone in the recovery efforts of Robert Wickens.

For the first time since the summer of 2018, the popular Canadian will race against his fellow NTT IndyCar Series competitors – virtually at least – in the second race of the INDYCAR’s iRacing Challenge at virtual Barber Motorsports Park.

Wickens’ entry in the virtual race is another positive step in his recovery efforts after he sustained a spinal cord injury in an Aug. 19, 2018 crash at Pocono Raceway.

“I’m just excited to drive something,” Wickens said in a Friday teleconference. “Last night was the first time I’ve driven any form of race car since the accident at Pocono. Even though it’s virtual, it still felt pretty good.”

While Wickens is excited to make his first iRacing start, his debut was delayed by a week because he wanted to make sure he had the proper equipment before getting started.

“Simulation was always step number one for me. But unfortunately, through one reason or another, it was very challenging to basically do it right,” Wickens said. “I didn’t want to purchase an Amazon setup and try to learn on that. I wanted to build a good foundation that you can evolve from because I see this as a great training tool for me to make my hand control second nature.”

Wickens withdrew from last week’s event after not receiving the equipment he needed in time. A group of members from the motorsport community headed by Max Papis attempted to overnight Wickens all the necessary equipment, but unfortunately, the package did not arrive at his home until Thursday. He will use a wheel provided by McLaren this weekend.

Regardless, Wickens appreciates the efforts made by Papis and others.

“I think I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but the fact that I have so many people supporting me on my return to this is amazing,” Wickens said. “When Max found out that I was in the market for a steering wheel, he jumped on and just got to work. He actually had already been doing stuff in the background that I wasn’t even aware of. He already had the hardware in his shop. I guess he was just waiting for me to reach out.

“He’s such a good guy. He’s a competitor at heart and although he’s retired from the cockpit, I think he sees his entrepreneurship as a new form of competition. He wants to be the best in the industry and he works hard, and I think he’s doing a great job.”

Wickens admits that with such little time to practice and a temporary wheel, he has a steep learning curve ahead of him. Nonetheless, he views iRacing as an important part of his recovery efforts.

“I always knew that through simulation was going to be the best way to try all the different handbrake configurations or paddle configurations so this is really just step one of 100 to get me back into the NTT IndyCar Series,” Wickens said. 

Some of Wicken’s fellow IndyCar competitors are also happy he will compete in this weekend’s race.

“It’s been great watching his progress,” said Will Power. “I think that like he said, his first step was to get back into a sim. It’s pretty cool that he’s actually able to get on and compete in a competition.”

Graham Rahal is another driver who is excited to race against Wickens again. Both drivers have been competing against each other since go-karts.

“To see his determination, to see his recovery process, to see his mentality and the way he’s thought through this is admirable but is not surprising from him if you’ve known him for a long time,” Rahal said. “I can tell you from going to see him in the hospital pretty early on after the accident that the destination was always there. He’s a guy who just from day one was committed to getting back on his feet and to getting back in a race car. It’s great to have him out here competing with us.”

Coverage of race two of the inaugural INDYCAR iRacing Challenge from virtual Barber Motorsports Park airs live Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994