The season-ending INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma was always going to be an uphill battle for Alexander Rossi.
Championship leader Scott Dixon, who led Rossi by 29 points entering the weekend, outqualified Rossi – second to Rossi’s sixth – giving him a theoretical advantage before the race even began.
Things only got worse for Rossi when the green flag waved, as a disastrous first lap saw him make contact with his Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti, damaging Rossi’s front wing and then cutting the right-front tire on the way back to the pits.
Rossi ran in 25th after the stop for a new wing, and all appeared lost in terms of his championship hopes.
However, he got a lifeline on Lap 44, when the race’s only full-course caution was flown after Graham Rahal pulled off on the back straightaway after losing power. It came seconds after Rossi completed his third pit stop of the day, and after he managed to stay just ahead of teammate and race leader Ryan Hunter-Reay to stay on the lead lap.
The yellow allowed Rossi to catch back up to the field, and he even pitted again under caution for a splash of fuel and a set of Firestone alternate reds.
He restarted the race in 20th on Lap 50, but was immediately on the charge. A chaotic restart saw him gain five spots in one lap, and he was back in the Top 10 by Lap 52.
Inside of the 20 laps to go, with final stops complete, Rossi found himself all the way up to fifth. However, Dixon remained ahead of him on track – Dixon ran second, where he ran for most of the race, behind Hunter-Reay.
What’s more, Rossi was in fuel-save mode in the final stint, and he surrendered a pair of positions to Marco Andretti and then Sebastien Bourdais.
In the end, Rossi took the checkered flag in seventh to end a trying day that saw his championship effort come up short.
“I got a good start and then, I don’t if (Marco) lifted or if I misjudged it. But, it is what it is, and it was going to be a tough day to beat Scott anyway,” Rossi lamented while talking to NBCSN’s Kevin Lee about the opening lap contact.
Rossi added, “But at the end of the day, this Napa No. 27 Andretti Autosport team did such a good job. It was unfortunate for it to go out like that. I wish I could replay that a million more times. But, it’s the way it is. The team did a great job to get me back on the road to recovery after the mistake that I made.”
However, Rossi still feels the 2018 season produced plenty of positives and is confident he and the team can build on it going into the 2019 season.
“At the end of the day, we have to look at 2018 and be pretty happy with it,” he said to Kevin Lee. “Obviously, you’re disappointed to come away second, and the first loser, but we have lots to work on and lots to improve upon for next year.”
Rossi ended up 57 points behind Dixon in the championship fight.
More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.
Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.
“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.
“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”
This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.
“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.
“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”
This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.
“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”
At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.
“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”
Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.
“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”
Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.
“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.
“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”