Cooler conditions lead to wild action in Monday’s Indy 500 practice

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INDIANAPOLIS – The 33-car starting lineup that will compete in Sunday’s 103rdIndianapolis 500 returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a wild and action-packed two-hour practice Monday.

It was a chance for the full field to practice with race setups, including different aerodynamic configurations with full fuel loads in contrast to the “trimmed out” aero settings during qualifications.

At the front, however, the results were the same as Sunday’s “Fast Nine” Shootout. Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud, the pole winner for the Indy 500, was the fastest on Monday with a lap at 228.441 mph in the No. 22 Chevrolet for Team Penske.

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“It was really good to be able to run with a lot of people on track,” Pagenaud said. “I thought at the end it was almost like a race. Everybody was on track. So that was entertaining. It was a good way to see how the car was reacting.

“The trick part is that it’s so cold that every car feels good today, I think. Obviously we have a good idea on where our car is at, but you want to see what the competition is like, as well, and that’s why you saw me running a lot behind people and cycle back to the back to try to understand who was strong and how they were driving their cars.

“I think we’ve got a really good balance so far. I think we still need to find a little more front grip alone and in traffic, and I think we’ll be in really good shape. Then the trick part is going to be to find the right level of downforce for the race. Obviously, like I said, with the temperature changing, that’s a very relevant point that is very important to work on with the engineers.”

The track temperature Monday was 89 and the ambient was 60 degrees with a light breeze. Race Day is expected to be in the high-80s, creating a far different grip level on the race track.

“I actually think the hotter conditions will induce more passing,” Team Penske President Tim Cindric told NBC Sports. “That’s because the tires will degrade faster, and you will have more comers and goers in the race.”

The track conditions on Monday allowed good grip for the 34 car/driver combinations that hit the track. The reason for the extra car/driver combo was veteran Tony Kanaan ran laps in both his No. 14 Chevrolet and teammate Matheus Leist’s No. 4 Chevrolet.

“It was busy,” Kanaan said. “For us, it was productive. I had to drive both cars because we wanted to make a change that was going to be too big to do it between one car only, so I jumped in his car to get a feel for it. We’ll try to make a decision. We have a week — five days to decide until we get to Carb Day. A pretty cool day. I wish it was like that in the race, but it’s not going to happen, so everything is going to change again.”

Pagenaud ran 88 laps, the equivalent of three full-tank runs of fuel. Teammate Josef Newgarden was second at 228.273 mph followed by Honda driver James Hinchcliffe’s 227.994 mph. Five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was fourth at 227.951 mph and 100thIndianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi rounded out the top-five at 227.660 mph.

There were 2,469 laps turned in the two-hour practice. Takuma Sato, the 101stIndy 500 winner, ran the most laps with 98 in a Honda.

Rossi remains “The Story” in INDYCAR in 2019

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – 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 of the race, 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 missing from deeming Rossi’s race complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pits 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 one-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 third three of the four 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 frontstraight 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 just 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-of-a-second behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he was never 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 NBC Sports.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 the 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 like with Honda. Both him 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 NBC Sports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there, I think we’re getting there,” Andretti said. “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 10 years from now 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, that 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.”