INDYCAR: Here’s what drivers said after Sunday’s IndyCar Classic at COTA

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Here’s what drivers said after Sunday’s second race of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule, the inaugural IndyCar classic at Circuit of the Americas:

COLTON HERTA (No. 88 Harding Stienbrenner Racing Honda) – WINNER: (About what it means to be not only the youngest race winner in Indy car history, but a race winner in general): “Just to be up with the names of people that have won a race, I’m going to live and die an NTT IndyCar Series winner, which is spectacular in itself.” (About if his strong performance in qualifying gave him a sense that he might win today): “I didn’t think it was going to happen. Seems like Will (Power) and (Alexander) Rossi had a bit of a pace advantage on us. I thought the max we were going to get was third (place) without a caution. Caution came out. We did our best. On the restart, we were quick. We kind of sprinted off. I know we got the quickest lap on that first lap, which was pretty crazy to have the tires up to temp and everything ready.”

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) – Finished 2nd:  “I thought we might have had a shot there at the end.  A lot of things played into the race today. We had a little luck and I thought that could play into our favor to race for another win. The PPG car looked good and felt good, it just wasn’t enough there at the end. So, I’m really proud of our guys. I’m proud of Team Chevy. I’m a little disappointed we missed it by a bit, but we’ll go on to the next one. A second place is big for us.  We talked about the fact that you need to have podium finishes if you aren’t winning races and this goes a long way to our championship run.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 27 DHL Honda) – Finished 3rd: “It was a pretty good race all in all. We definitely didn’t have the speed for Will (Power), Alex (Rossi) and Colton (Herta), but I’m happy we were able to get DHL and the No. 28 team another podium. Congratulations to Colton. There at the end, he was so fast, it was really impressive, he has really clicked with this track. It was busy – hard not to make a mistake. The car is flying all over the place. It was great being here for our first race and we have to thank everybody from Austin for coming out and making the event great. I think next year we will come back with an even better show.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Total Honda) – Finished 4th: “I thought it was a good day. We battled. I thought we got lucky there with that yellow (flag), all of us up front at the finish got lucky a little bit, but that’s OK we’ll take it. Our car had pace all day. We just kept battling, kept battling with the same group, having to fight our race through the same group of guys. Realistically, we were a top-five, top-six car no matter what. Our guys worked hard to get this No. 15 TOTAL Honda to the front. I think the pit stops were really strong. We’ve got a lot of young guys on the pit stops and they did a great job. We’ll put our heads down from here. The great sign is that RLL (Rahal Letterman Lanigan) is competitive. We were competitive at St. Pete, we were competitive here. We couldn’t say that so much last year, so it’s a good start to the year.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 SealMaster Honda) – Finished 5th: “It’s great to get a top-five finish after the weekend we were having. Great job by the No. 18 SealMaster Honda team. A solid strategy and a good job in the pits. It was a very static race, not much going on. I didn’t really go anywhere. Then, toward the end, some guys decided to gamble, but I had to stop and then try and run fast. The guys ahead of me didn’t go anywhere. We weren’t really very far from them. Then the yellow (flag) came out as we were in pit lane. That’s about as lucky as you are going to get. I feel bad for the leaders because they really didn’t deserve that, but we didn’t deserve the problem we had in St. Pete, so I guess things even out.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete Honda) – Finished 6th: “It was just too little, too late. I think the car took a stint or two to spool up, but once we got there, the car was great. We were able to get gain track position, and ultimately, ended up sixth. I knew in the warmup we were cruising – we knew the race car was going to be good, but the red flag in qualifying caught us out. I think if we could have qualified our car, we would’ve had a better starting position and the U.S. Concrete car could’ve been further up at the checkers. We just need to keep up this pace and move on to Barber.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda) – Finished 7th: “It was a very exciting race.  At one point it was a shame, but (Jack) Harvey had an issue and he got slowed down and I was boxed in with (Scott) Dixon. If it didn’t happen, I was a pinball right and left.  If it didn’t happen I would have been fifth or higher. We had a failure on the air jack on the last pit stop so we lost a bunch of places.  Considering that, I think the strategy and the yellow helped bring us back to seventh place. For the team, under the difficult circumstances, it was a good weekend.”

PATRICIO O’WARD (No. 31 Carlin Chevrolet) – Finished 8th: “I think it was a pretty good race for us. We ended exactly where we started (eighth) and didn’t go backwards, so I’d say that was a successful day. We ran a clean race and we were right on pace, but after that yellow came out we needed one more lap under yellow to be able to push as hard as we wanted to. I was having to save a lot of fuel to make it to the end, so it was just impossible to keep Marco (Andretti) and Takuma (Sato) behind me coming full power. I know the No. 31 Carlin Chevrolet had a top-five finish in it today and even though we couldn’t make it happen, it’s nice to know that we have the pace and can be fighting up front with the veteran drivers. Huge congrats to Colton (Herta). I’m really happy for him – I know this means a lot to him.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda) – Finished 9th: “The NAPA AUTO PARTS car was awesome. Will (Power) and I were in a league of our own. For the first two-thirds of the race, it was just me and Will (Power) – especially in the third stint, we were both fast and were able to gap ourselves from the rest of the field. It was going to be a pretty awesome race between the two of us there on new (Firestone) reds, but never got the opportunity with the yellow. From there the day was kind of over. It’s unfortunate we never got a shot to play it out. We’ll move on and focus forward on the races ahead.”

JACK HARVEY (No. 60 AutoNation / SiriusXM Honda) – Finished 10th: “The whole team did a great job to make up all those positions. It was nice to be on the good end of the yellow flag, which put us in a competitive position with about 10 laps to go. If you had asked me this morning, I wouldn’t have thought we would have finished 10th. Towards the end I thought we had great pace and I think we showed that we belong in the top 10. For me, I just want to keep getting these types of results. So far it’s two races and two top ten (finishes) so I can’t complain.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda) – Finished 16th: “Starting side-by-side with (my teammate) Marcus (Ericsson), we decided to split the tire strategy. It’s funny – coming into the last stint, we converged almost identically. We didn’t have quite as good pace on the blacks (Firestone primary tires), but the Arrow car felt really good on the (Firestone alternate) reds. Marcus and I pitted, I think, from seventh and eighth almost together near the end with sticker reds. There were a couple of guys in front of us with scrubbed reds and they definitely were falling off more than our (tires) were, so we were looking at a solid top 10, maybe even flirting with a top five today. Which, given where we started, would have been a great result. Unfortunately, I got caught up in the incident with Felix (Rosenqvist), and it’s unfortunate, we had a really good battle back and forth, so it shows that Circuit of The Americas can put on a good race. Ultimately a bit of a racing incident in Turn 19; I feel bad for Felix – he was having a good race as well. Proud of the Arrow SPM boys. Not the result we wanted, certainly, but from where we started, I think we rebounded nicely. Had we not gotten caught up in that incident, and had Marcus not had a problem in pit lane, I think both cars would have been toward the top of the leaderboard.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet) – Finished 21st: “Another long day at the office for us. It was just an extremely unlucky day for the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet. We lost a few spots right out of the gate and then we had a very long pit stop trying to get the car going again after running out of fuel. It just wasn’t our day at all, but I’m a big fan of the track at Barber, so I’m looking forward to hopefully finding a little bit of luck and coming out with a good result.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) – Finished 22nd: “Overall, it was a pretty disappointing day. We had pace all weekend and unfortunately, on the start got the bad end of a racing deal and pushed off the track. We got back on track behind then had to replace a tow link on the right front and that kind of set our fate for the rest of the day. It’s disappointing for the Gainbridge crew – we had the pace to be up front but a racing deal ultimately took us out.”

FELIX ROSENQVIST (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) – Finished 23rd: “We had good speed in the NTT DATA car and we just couldn’t get where we needed to in the race. I made a mistake and spun which didn’t help. Then (James) Hinchcliffe and I got together and I got knocked out. I’m not sure what happened exactly, but I’ll have to look at the replay. But there were things I learned for sure and we’ll come back stronger at (Barber).”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) – Finished 24th: “Yeah, it feels like an input shaft. I just released the clutch snap and I could kind of hear it grinding together. I’m massively disappointed, man; like you lead all those laps and worked so hard all weekend to put yourself into position. If the yellow (flag) didn’t get us, the driveshaft did.  Another hole at the beginning of the season. But the guys have done a great job. We’re quick every weekend. Oh, I just want to have a good run, man. I just want to have a normal run in a season without this sort of crap.”

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Alexander Rossi remains the story in IndyCar in 2019

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly timed move to race side by side with Herta going into Turn 1.

By Turn 2 of the first lap, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes, including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing kept Rossi’s race from being deemed complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pit stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by a full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished second three times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the front straight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution.

Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816 seconds behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he never was challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBCSports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats, and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season, and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties lie with Honda. Both he and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBCSports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there,” Andretti said. “I think we’re getting there. We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that? After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history, including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500?

In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races in a decade, and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, which is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist.

Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”