IndyCar

Alexander Rossi came into his own in 2018, all that’s left is to win IndyCar crown

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There’s no question about it: the 2018 season has been a coming of age for Alexander Rossi.

We’re not talking about Rossi’s actual age (although he turns 27 on September 25th). Rather, in 2018 the Auburn, California native has come into his own as one of the most successful and consistent drivers in IndyCar.

The stats he’s amassed this season have more than doubled his overall performances in his first two seasons in IndyCar, 2016 and 2017.

Sure, he won the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 as a rookie. And while that will likely be the pinnacle for the rest of his career – unless he wins the Greatest Spectacle In Racing a few more times – Rossi has gone from curious spectacle after winning the 500 to a legitimate championship contender.

Where Rossi can usually be found in 2018: at the front of the pack.

Consider the facts:

* Rossi earned one win (Indy in ’16 and Watkins Glen in 2017) in each of his first two seasons. He’s already won three races in 2018, with one more race remaining next weekend, the season-ending Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway.

* Rossi had a combined four podium finishes in his first two seasons. He’s doubled that in 2018 with eight podiums in the first 16 races.

* He led 23 laps in 2016, including 14 en route to his win at Indy, and led 99 laps in all of 2017. Thus far in 2018, he’s led 415 laps.

* He had an average start and finish of 14.3 and 11.8, respectively, in 2016. He improved to 8.6 and 9.5 last season. But this season, Rossi has really shined, with an average start of 6.3 and average finish of 5.6.

* He had 11 lead lap finishes in both 2016 and 2017, a mark he’s already eclipsed in 2018 (15). He’s also been running at the finish in every race this season, as opposed to 15 in 2016 and 16 in 2017.

If that’s not a breakout season, what is?

“It’s been great,” Rossi said during a Thursday morning IndyCar media teleconference. “It’s been a continuation of really the second half of 2017 where I think the whole Andretti Autosport organization made a pretty big step forward. It’s been a pleasure to be part of the team and watch the progress that’s been made since I came onboard in ’16.

“The fact that we’ve been able to win three races this year, run towards the front most weekends, has been kind of just the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of very good people on the team.”

Now Rossi will have the biggest race of his career on Sept. 16. Yes, even bigger than his win at Indy.

If the driver of the No. 27 Andretti Autosport NAPA Auto Parts Honda can overcome the 29-point deficit he has to series leader Scott Dixon, Rossi will become an IndyCar champion for the first time – and potentially the first of perhaps several more to come in the future.

Dixon will not make it easy on Rossi. The New Zealander also has great incentive: he is going for his fifth IndyCar championship at Sonoma.

In fact, Dixon has had a very Rossi-like year – or you could say Rossi has had a very Dixon-like year – with three wins, eight podiums, 357 laps led, a 7.9 starting average and the best average finish of all IndyCar drivers in the series at 4.4.

Rossi knows what’s on the line next Sunday. He also knows that he pretty much has to drive the race of his career, yes, even bigger and better than at Indianapolis.

He can’t wait for Dixon to slip up and make a mistake, because that’s a rarity. If Rossi expects that to happen, he could potentially be in for a rude awakening.

Rather, he has to make things happen on his own. And while he has to drive aggressively as he traverses Sonoma, he also has to reign in over-aggressiveness, lest that leads to an incident with another driver that could potentially end his championship hopes early.

“To actually be going into this weekend with a goal in mind of trying to win the thing outright, it’s just a privilege,” Rossi said. “It’s a privilege to be mentioned in the same sentence at Scott Dixon, to be able to race against someone of his caliber week in and week out, hopefully get the better of him.”

Rossi acknowledges that if it wasn’t for a string of fair to mediocre mid-season showings, he might actually be leading the championship battle heading to Sonoma, not Dixon. At the same time, he and his team rallied back hard and fast to be right in the middle of the title bout.

“I think there’s always points in the season which you look back on as a missed opportunity,” he said. “You talk about that, then you look forward, you try and maximize the best that you have. We had three pretty rough weekends in a row with Road America (16th, his worst finish of the season), Iowa (9th) and Toronto (8th). We knew that it was going to take something pretty special to get ourselves back in the fight.

“Going to Mid-Ohio, we just focused on just doing our job on Sunday. We always had a fast car, but we weren’t executing, sometimes making mistakes, generally up and down throughout the whole team. You can’t win a championship that way. I think everyone just really refocused and recentered going into Mid-Ohio. We’ve seen the results of that (he won there and again in the following race at Pocono, as well as was runner-up at Gateway).”

Now with one race left, you’d think Rossi would have at least one advantage over the other three championship contenders: Dixon, Will Power and Josef Newgarden.

The reason: Sonoma Raceway is only about 90 miles from Rossi’s hometown. He considers it his home track and he realizes how many family members and friends will be in attendance next Sunday, cheering him on – hopefully to the championship..

First, the good news about his family and friends being at-track next weekend.

“The past couple of years I’ve had probably a bit more than 75 guests,” Rossi said. “It’s an amazing weekend from that standpoint. Obviously with it being the last time we’re racing at Sonoma (IndyCar will race starting next year at Laguna Seca instead of Sonoma Raceway), we’ll hopefully end on a high personally, because that track has a lot of personal history for me and my family.

“Yeah, we’re just going to try to go out there, put on a show for everyone, make it a pretty awesome season finale.”

Will having so many friends and family there put more pressure or act as more of a distraction for the business at hand for Rossi?

“I don’t really think either,” he said when asked by NBC Sports. “It makes my weekend busier because there’s a lot more kind of meet-and-greets, stuff like that.

“At the end of the day, you don’t really realize, I mean, who is there or what’s there as soon as you get to pit lane, put your helmet on.

“Yeah, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m really happy there will be friends and family and such there. Hopefully it’s a good enough weekend that we can all have a big celebration Sunday night.”

But even though Sonoma Raceway is his home track, surprisingly, Rossi doesn’t consider it one of his favorite tracks.

“It’s not in the top five,” he admitted. “I don’t know where to go from there. I mean, it’s a great track from the standpoint of it’s in a beautiful part of California, it’s very challenging to drive.

“It’s a track most affected by weather conditions because it’s on the hill. The performance and pace you have in the morning to where you are in the afternoon is drastically different. I mean, it definitely keeps you on your toes.

“No, I wouldn’t consider it a favorite of mine.”

That could change, of course, if he wins next Sunday. But one thing that won’t change, no matter what, is Rossi’s mindset and his team’s strategy going into Sonoma.

“You don’t change your approach,” Rossi said. “I mean, I’m going to win, I’m going to try to beat people, do exactly what we’ve been doing all year. That’s our only responsibility.

“If we win, we’ve done our job right. If it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t really matter. We have to go into the weekend and do all we can do to maximize ourselves, our potential.

“We have had a car in contention to win a race probably 90 percent of this year. There’s no reason to change that now.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NHRA Texas winners: B. Torrence, Hagan, Anderson, Savoie

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Defending NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence is a proud Texan who hates to lose. But if there’s one person Torrence likely doesn’t mind seeing win if he can’t reach the winner’s circle – particularly if it’s on home turf – it’s father Billy.

Steve was cheering his father on as the latter boosted his own championship hopes Sunday by winning the Top Fuel category in the final eliminations of the 34th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in the Dallas suburb of Ennis, Texas.

Billy Torrence (3.775 seconds at 319.67 mph) defeated Jordan Vandergriff (4.299 seconds, 246.03 mph in his first career final round) for his fourth win of the season, including his second win in the first four races of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. With the fifth Top Fuel triumph of his career, the elder Torrence moved into fourth in the Top Fuel standings, just 71 points behind his son with two races remaining in the Countdown.

Even though Billy’s son lost in the opening round Sunday, he still leads the Top Fuel standings, holding a 33-point lead over second-ranked Doug Kalitta and a 46-point lead over third-ranked and the weekend’s No. 1 qualifier, Brittany Force.

Sunday marked the third consecutive win in this year’s playoffs for the father-son combo and their second straight triumph at Dallas (Steve won there last year as part of an unprecedented sweep of the six-race Countdown en route to the championship).

It’s home turf and we love to race here,” Billy Torrence said after visiting the winner’s circle. “We’ve raced here our whole career and we have a lot of fans here. There’s no better place to race than Dallas, Texas, and we did have the best car today.

It has been very humbling, and we’ve been very blessed and fortunate to have the success we’ve had. We’ve got a great group of guys on both cars and our success is just a testament to the work these guys do. I think that we’re probably the second-best car in the country, with Steve having the best. We’ve had a stellar season.”

In Funny Car: Matt Hagan (3.909 seconds at 327.59 mph) roared to his third win of the season – as well as his third at the Motorplex – and the 32nd victory of his career, defeating Bob Tasca (3.928 seconds at 323.12 mph). Hagan also moved up to fourth in the standings.

We had a great race car today,” Hagan said. “Qualifying was pretty tough, but to turn on four win lights was pretty huge. (Tasca) is a great driver and those guys are good, so I’m glad things turned out the way they did.

We’re just trying to keep some momentum going, keep doing our job and control what we can control. It was a pretty special weekend. We’ve just got to keep digging and keep working. I love this sport and it’s been a big part of my life for 10 years. I knew (crew chief Dickie Venables) was tuned in and you could see he was confident, and that builds confidence in me.”

Robert Hight continues to lead the Funny Car standings, followed by Jack Beckman (70 points back) and No. 1 qualifier John Force (74 points back).

In Pro Stock: Greg Anderson (6.609 seconds at 209.75 mph) defeated longtime rival Jeg Coughlin Jr. (6.610 seconds at 207.56 mph) to earn his third win of the season, fifth of his career at the Motorplex and 94th of his overall Pro Stock career.

It was the 102nd time Anderson and Coughlin, who qualified No. 1 for the weekend, have met each other in a race, including the 21st time in the final round.

We’ve had so many titanic clashes with so much on the line, and I knew it would be close,” said Anderson, who is seventh in points. “It’s a total team effort and that’s what it takes to win a national event in Pro Stock right now. You’ve got to have perfection every time out there.

We made a lot of changes this week and we hit on it. It showed it on Saturday and I knew coming into today we had a chance. Now it’s a matter of if I can drive the car well enough. I can’t tell you who’s going to win this thing because everybody right now can beat everybody else.”

Erica Enders held on to her lead in the category, but saw the margin over second-ranked Matt Hartford drop to only 28 points. Coughlin is third (-65 points) and Anderson is seventh (-99 points).

In Pro Stock Motorcycle: Jerry “Alligator Farmer” Savoie (6.881 seconds at 195.90 mph) took a big step towards potentially earning his second PSM championship in the last three seasons, defeating three-time champion Eddie Krawiec (6.901 seconds at 195.62 mph).

It was Savoie’s third win of the season and 12th of his career. It’s also his second win in the first four playoff races and fifth straight appearance in the final round at the Motorplex. He’s now third in the PSM standings, 94 points behind five-time champion Andrew Hines.

It was a great day and we knew we had a good bike coming in,” Savoie said. “We said if we held our composure we could win this thing. For the most part, tracks favor certain riders and we’ve been blessed here. It’s a great place and today was great.

Bottom line, I want a championship just as bad as anybody else, so whoever is in my way I’m going to do everything I can to try and beat them. I felt good and we’ve got a great team. To me, this win gives you more hope and means a lot. This gives you that window of opportunity where you could win a championship again.”

NOTES: Only two races remain this season: Las Vegas in two weeks (Oct. 31 – Nov. 3) and Pomona, California four weeks from now (Nov. 14 – 17).

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER

TOP FUEL: 1. Billy Torrence; 2. Jordan Vandergriff; 3. Brittany Force; 4. Austin Prock; 5. Leah Pritchett; 6. Antron Brown; 7. Shawn Reed; 8. Lee Callaway; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Doug Kalitta; 12. Kebin Kinsley; 13. Mike Salinas; 14. Cameron Ferre; 15. Clay Millican; 16. Richie Crampton.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. John Force; 4. Robert Hight; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. J.R. Todd; 7. Jack Beckman; 8. Shawn Langdon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Ron Capps; 11. Paul Lee; 12. Blake Alexander; 13. Cruz Pedregon; 14. Jim Campbell; 15. Jeff Arend; 16. Jonnie Lindberg.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Deric Kramer; 4. Matt Hartford; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Chris McGaha; 7. Aaron Stanfield; 8. Bo Butner; 9. Jason Line; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Val Smeland; 12. Kenny Delco; 13. Shane Tucker; 14. Fernando Cuadra; 15. Alex Laughlin; 16. Richie Stevens.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Angelle Sampey; 4. Andrew Hines; 5. Steve Johnson; 6. Karen Stoffer; 7. Scotty Pollacheck; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Angie Smith; 12. Hector Arana Jr; 13. Kelly Clontz; 14. Michael Ray; 15. Jianna Salinas.

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FINAL RESULTS

TOP FUEL: Billy Torrence, 3.775 seconds, 319.67 mph def. Jordan Vandergriff, 4.299 seconds, 246.03 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.909, 327.59 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.928, 323.12.

PRO STOCK: Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.609, 209.75 def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.610, 207.56.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.881, 195.90 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.901, 195.62.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Jordan Vandergriff, 3.746, 321.12 def. Clay Millican, 4.099, 219.72; Austin Prock, 3.688, 334.40 def. Doug Kalitta, 3.812, 316.15; Lee Callaway, 3.794, 313.66 def. Mike Salinas, 3.856, 318.69; Brittany Force, 3.694, 330.31 def. Cameron Ferre, 3.984, 269.19; Leah Pritchett, 3.724, 324.12 def. Kebin Kinsley, 3.822, 263.51; Billy Torrence, 3.733, 327.35 def. Terry McMillen, 3.756, 325.77; Shawn Reed, 3.728, 327.51 def. Steve Torrence, 3.733, 319.52; Antron Brown, 3.743, 329.58 def. Richie Crampton, 4.330, 186.61; QUARTERFINALS — Vandergriff, 3.753, 322.73 def. Callaway, 9.885, 82.51; B. Torrence, 3.767, 325.69 def. Reed, 4.861, 154.60; Prock, 3.742, 330.39 def. Pritchett, 3.964, 250.55; Force, 3.815, 319.60 def. Brown, 4.113, 230.72; SEMIFINALS — B. Torrence, 3.747, 328.38 def. Force, 3.793, 318.32; Vandergriff, 3.824, 316.97 def. Prock, 3.864, 294.95; FINAL — B. Torrence, 3.775, 319.67 def. Vandergriff, 4.299, 246.03.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.896, 328.86 def. Ron Capps, Charger, 3.955, 326.79; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.908, 327.03 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.375, 219.54; John Force, Camaro, 3.926, 328.14 def. Jeff Arend, Ford Mustang, 7.353, 96.26; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 3.911, 327.19 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 4.342, 209.20; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.873, 327.19 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 15.205, 57.93; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.903, 329.58 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 4.007, 280.19; Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.925, 325.85 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.908, 323.97; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.932, 324.05 def. Paul Lee, Charger, 3.957, 323.97; QUARTERFINALS — Hight, 3.937, 326.40 def. Langdon, 3.964, 321.35; Hagan, 3.903, 329.18 def. Todd, 3.937, 325.85; Tasca III, 3.938, 324.20 def. Beckman, 3.951, 322.42; Force, 3.937, 327.98 def. Johnson Jr., 3.919, 320.20; SEMIFINALS — Hagan, 3.900, 329.83 def. Hight, Foul – Red Light; Tasca III, 3.920, 323.89 def. Force, 3.951, 327.98; FINAL — Hagan, 3.909, 327.59 def. Tasca III, 3.928, 323.12.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Aaron Stanfield, Chevy Camaro, 6.609, 208.91 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.635, 208.68; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.597, 208.78 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.590, 208.88; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 7.964, 125.90 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.602, 207.59 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Camaro, 6.615, 208.17; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.617, 208.14 def. Shane Tucker, Camaro, 6.638, 207.85; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.577, 209.56 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.618, 208.55; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.579, 210.11 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 7.820, 127.56; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.573, 209.49 def. Richie Stevens, Dodge Dart, Broke; QUARTERFINALS — Hartford, 6.625, 208.23 def. Butner, 6.656, 208.42; Anderson, 6.596, 210.05 def. Enders, 6.604, 210.54; Kramer, 6.611, 209.17 def. McGaha, 6.630, 208.75; Coughlin, 6.620, 208.23 def. Stanfield, 6.630, 208.46; SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.609, 207.37 def. Hartford, 6.656, 207.43; Anderson, 6.628, 206.76 def. Kramer, 6.627, 208.30; FINAL — Anderson, 6.609, 209.75 def. Coughlin, 6.610, 207.56.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.912, 195.34 def. Ryan Oehler, 6.901, 196.33; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.863, 196.67 def. Angie Smith, 6.910, 195.65; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.885, 194.46 def. Hector Arana Jr, 6.933, 193.52; Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.903, 190.89 def. Hector Arana, Foul – Red Light; Scotty Pollacheck, 6.898, 194.21 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.955, 192.08; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.849, 194.21 def. Michael Ray, 7.209, 155.76; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.827, 196.10 def. Jianna Salinas, Suzuki, 8.231, 104.03; Matt Smith, 6.837, 197.33 was unopposed; QUARTERFINALS — Sampey, 6.914, 193.93 def. Pollacheck, 6.918, 194.16; Hines, 6.921, 194.58 def. Johnson, 6.889, 194.35; Krawiec, 6.899, 195.76 def. M. Smith, 6.935, 196.24; Savoie, 6.857, 196.44 def. Stoffer, 6.900, 196.07; SEMIFINALS — Krawiec, 6.957, 195.48 def. Sampey, 6.989, 190.35; Savoie, 6.877, 195.76 def. Hines, 6.991, 191.51; FINAL — Savoie, 6.881, 195.90 def. Krawiec, 6.901, 195.62.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 2,394; 2. Doug Kalitta, 2,361; 3. Brittany Force, 2,348; 4. Billy Torrence, 2,323; 5. Leah Pritchett, 2,290; 6. Austin Prock, 2,278; 7. Mike Salinas, 2,266; 8. Antron Brown, 2,247; 9. Richie Crampton, 2,228; 10. Clay Millican, 2,210.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, 2,437; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,367; 3. John Force, 2,363; 4. Matt Hagan, 2,325; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,315; 6. Ron Capps, 2,302; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,274; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,243; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,239; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,188.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 2,395; 2. Matt Hartford, 2,367; 3. Jeg Coughlin, 2,330; 4. Jason Line, 2,327; 5. Deric Kramer, 2,323; 6. Bo Butner, 2,321; 7. Greg Anderson, 2,296; 8. Alex Laughlin, 2,239; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,217; 10. Val Smeland, 2,124.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 2,464; 2. Karen Stoffer, 2,383; 3. Jerry Savoie, 2,370; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,365; 5. Matt Smith, 2,297; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,274; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,248; 8. Angie Smith, 2,181; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,159; 10. Hector Arana, 2,128.

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