Rossi’s IndyCar Grand Prix over before it ever started

INDYCAR Photo by John Cote
INDYCAR Photo by John Cote
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INDIANAPOLIS – When it comes to “Slicing and Dicing,” Alexander Rossi is the best thing since Ron Popeil’s “Veg-O-Matic.”

The NTT IndyCar Series star is fantastic when he starts up front, but he becomes “Captain Ridiculous” when he has to start midpack or lower.

At Phoenix in 2017, Rossi suffered a variety of issues but passed his way through the field twice. Rossi passed 53 cars in the race after an early drive-through penalty for hitting one of his crew members dropped him to last place.

In last year’s 102nd Indianapolis 500, Rossi’s car had a rear tire go flat on the final lap of his four-lap qualification attempt. Instead of challenging for a starting position of 10th or 12th, he had to start 32nd in the field.

In the race, Rossi put on an incredible show. While other drivers had difficulty passing cars on a hot and slick Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Rossi was able to make brave passes and finished fourth.

After failing to advance out of the first segment in Friday’s qualifications, Rossi’s No. 27 Honda started 17th in Saturday’s IndyCar Grand Prix at the IMS road course. Fans already were excited over the prospect of watching the talented driver from Northern California “slice and dice” his way through the field around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn circuit.

Alexander Rossi was going to put on a real show.

Instead, he was out of contention moments after the green flag waved. As the 24-car starting lineup raced down the frontstraight, rookie Patricio O’Ward ran into the back of Rossi’s Honda. The impact damaged the corner of Rossi’s car, and he had to head to the pit area for repairs.

“He just smoked the back of me,” Rossi told NBC Sports as he stood on pit wall after the race. “He got a drive-through penalty for it. Unfortunately, we had to replace the right-rear corner, so we were four laps down.

“A drive-through penalty doesn’t really bring me back anything.”

INDYCAR PhotoDespite the drive-through penalty, it put O’Ward on a different pit stop strategy than many of the other drivers in the field. That allowed him to race as high as second place at one point in the 85-lap contest.

“Considering where we started and a mishap on the start, we had made up a ton of ground,” O’Ward said after finishing 19th. “Regardless of how the race ended, I think we should be very pleased with how we ran and our overall pace.

“In the end, we just made a mistake.”

Rossi would return to the race and had a fast car but was too many laps down to be a factor. So, for the next 2 1/2 hours, Rossi had to ride around on his own lap. He finished the race 22nd, four laps down to the winner, Simon Pagenaud.

“It was difficult, because that is not what we are here for,” Rossi said. “You stay in it and hope guys will fall out, and you will be able to pick up positions through attrition, which wasn’t really the case today.

“But hey, we had a fast race car for the first time all weekend. It’s unfortunate it was a day late. If we had qualified better, we wouldn’t have gotten hit at the start, and it would have been a different day.”

Because he was out of contention so early but remained in the race, Rossi had to drive a different race than what he expected.

“I had to be very respectful of guys racing for position and let them go and do their thing,” Rossi said. “When we got clean air, we pushed, and we were in the top three or four most competitive cars on the track in the wet and dry.

“Hats off to the NAPA Auto Parts/Andretti boys for staying in it. You never know what can happen; it just didn’t come back to us today.”

It could have been worse for Rossi, however. His points situation was mitigated when NTT IndyCar Series leader Josef Newgarden finished 15th after leading the second-most laps (20).

Rossi is third in points, 36 points behind Newgarden. He entered the IndyCar Grand Prix second in points, 28 behind Newgarden.

Had Newgarden’s strategy of pitting out of sequence worked, Rossi could have lost a lot more points.

Beginning Tuesday, Rossi and Newgarden will be among the 36 drivers who begin practice for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26. That race pays double points, and Rossi can quickly erase Saturday’s disappointment.

“That’s it, it’s the big one,” Rossi said. “We’ve been fast every year in the 500. We need to put our heads down this past week, make sure we dial in the car and hopefully start better than 32nd come race day. We’ll go from there and hopefully have a chance to win it.

“We are already rebounded. Today is irrelevant. We will get back to work on Tuesday.”

INDYCAR PhotoRossi’s storyline was among the many that made Saturday’s first telecast of an NTT IndyCar Series race from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on NBC a success.

The IndyCar Grand Prix Race on NBC drew a 0.85 overnight rating, standing as the highest overnight delivery for this race since 2014’s race on ABC (5/10/14; 0.89).

The 0.85 overnight rating is up 31 percent from last year’s IndyCar Grand Prix on ABC (5/12/18; 0.65).

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”