‘The track will choose you’: Drivers on why winning Indy is so difficult

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INDIANAPOLIS – It took a dozen tries for Tony Kanaan to win the Indianapolis 500, leaving the Brazilian with nearly too much emptiness, frustration and heartache to bear at times.

If only he knew from the outset what he and so many other IndyCar drivers have come to learn about winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the world-famous 500-Mile Race that the 2.5-mile oval has hosted for more than a century.

“The track will choose you,” said Kanaan, who led eight races and probably had the best car three or four times before finally tasting the Winner’s Circle milk in 2013. “If she picks the winner, that’s the guy who’s going to win.

“There’s something magical about this place that you can’t explain. When people think they have it figured out, the place goes, ‘No you haven’t. I own this thing. And I will decide.’ ”

There could be more worthy candidates desperate to be tapped Sunday than ever.

The 103rd Indy 500 will roll off at 12:45 p.m. ET on NBC with its closest field in history.

A scant 1.8932 seconds separates pole-sitter Simon Pagenaud from Pippa Mann, breaking the previous mark of 2.1509 seconds in 2014 (which featured the race’s second-closest finish with Ryan Hunter-Reay holding off three-time winner Helio Castroneves by 0.6 seconds).

The 2019 race occurs with the NTT IndyCar Series enjoying a major renaissance with many proclaiming it’s depth of talent and teams is at a high-water mark since 1995, the last year before racing’s worst civil war split IndyCar into two rival series that diluted the competition and desecrated the Greatest Spectacle in Racing for several years.

A decade past reunification, a new era is under way in which IndyCar again has become a destination for world-class drivers, and its biggest race will be the benefactor Sunday.

“It’s the most competitive field I’ve ever seen in my 18 years here,” Kanaan said. “Qualifying was extremely hard, and it’s really tight. So yeah, I think it’s going to be a difficult race. I do strongly believe that everybody, every single guy starting this race, and girl, they think they can win this race, which is true.”

But there still is that matter of having good fortune smile upon you, as it has for 70 of the 777 drivers who have started at Indy (six for the first time this year).

It happened in 2016 for rookie Alexander Rossi, who was running in the top 10 but didn’t have “a race-winning car by any stretch of the imagination.” Two mediocre pit stops put him off sequence from the rest of the field … and on the path to victory lane on fuel mileage.

“We found a strategy that was the right one,” Rossi said. “Whereas in 2017, I feel I had the most dominant car, and then I end up finishing seventh and were nowhere close at the end.

“It is impossible to know who’s going to win this one, which is what makes it what it is. You can go to a Road America or even an Iowa and the guy on pole, he’s probably got it locked up. Whereas here, it can be 33 guys who can win this race.

“That’s why we all have such an obsession with it because it’s not necessarily the guy who does the best job. It’s just the guy that the track chooses. I think there’s a lot of merit to that.”

If the outcome does come down to the best driver and fastest car, many are pointing at Rossi’s No. 27 Dallara-Honda. The Andretti Autosport ace has had the fastest car for much of the past two weeks, and he left no doubt about his ability to manage traffic last year when he started 32nd and finished fourth with a blinding array of brilliant passes on restarts.

Rossi and others complained that passing was too difficult in 2018 (after a string of Indy 500s in which lead changes seemingly were nonstop), and IndyCar officials responded by tweaking this year’s cars to enhance front grip.

Because Sunday’s temperatures are expected to be in the 70s, the ambient track temperature should be low enough to engender more action than last year.

“I think they made a step,” Rossi said. “I don’t know it’s completely all the way to get back to the race we’ve had in ’14 through 2017. Because the issue last year was if you were behind one car, it was easy to follow, and you could get around someone. If you were two to three cars back, it was really, really challenging. Now you can be three to four cars back and be OK.

“The short answer is it’ll definitely be a more interesting race than last year. And that’s a good thing, for sure.”

As always, the key to winning will be positioning – particularly with a well-executed final pit stop and accompanying handling adjustments to the car. Drivers want that, plus a top-five spot with 75 to 100 miles remaining to have a legitimate shot at winning.

“You have to put yourself in position every single year, and hopefully one of the years, it just kind of falls your way and works out,” said Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, who will make his eighth Indy start in search of his first win. “A lot of people say the track chooses you, and I think to some degree that’s true. You have 10 races there, and you could put yourself in position all 10 races, and maybe none of them choose you. It’s just such a hard race to win.

“The best thing you can do is put yourself in position. Being in that top three right at the very end and hoping you had the right car, the right trim level, you made the right decision. You had the best final pit stop. All those things line up, and I think you can win the event. So the more times you give yourself that opportunity, I think the more likely it is that one of those years is going to pan out.”

Graham Rahal, who will be trying to join his father, Bobby, as one of 70 Indy 500 winners, will be making his dozenth attempt at the Brickyard. He was stunned to learn that Rick Mears, one of three four-time Indy 500 winners, collected all of his wins over a period of 13 starts.

“This place is so elusive,” Rahal said. “When it’s your opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. When you’re a kid, you don’t think about things like that. This is my 12th. You start to think about that. What am I doing wrong? Every opportunity you get, you have to make the most out of it because for me, God knows how many more there are. There aren’t many opportunities to maximize that.

“It’s easy not to think that way when you first come around this place. It’s easy to take it for granted and think some day it’ll be your turn. It’s just going to happen. It isn’t just going to happen. You have to put it all together. It’s hard to do.”

Said Rossi: “It’s a part of the addiction. It’s why as soon as Sunday at 4 o’clock rolls around, and you haven’t one, you’re immediately thinking about the next year’s race. And you don’t have that at other events. If you have another event and finish third and on the podium, that’s pretty cool, that’s a good result. Whatever. Here if you’re third, you’re angry. Nothing else matters. You either win or you might as well as go home.”

It’s a feeling Kanaan knows well, though the A.J. Foyt Racing driver said his long wait never was tinged by bitterness but instead full of respect for a track with 110 years of history.

“I remember the worst days of my life were the Mondays after this race when you don’t win,” he said. “You feel like extremely empty. It’s like a hangover. Not to get affected by it and say, ‘I’d never do this again.’ It just took all my power away.

“So, for me, it was always Monday I’d wake up if I hadn’t won and think about what’s going to happen 364 days from then.”

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.”