IndyCar 2022 preview: Alexander Rossi says fast start will be key to his contract year

IndyCar Alexander Rossi contract
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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It’s a contract year for Alexander Rossi, but the Andretti Autosport driver views that as mostly a nominal status in racing and the NTT IndyCar Series.

“It’s very important obviously, but I wouldn’t say this is more important than any other year,” Rossi, who is entering his seventh season with the team, told NBC Sports. “Motorsports, we’ve all seen and heard the stories. Contracts are fine on paper, but ultimately, you have to be performing well. This is a results-driven sport.

“We all know that whether it’s a contract year or not, you’re judged based on your last race, your last year, your last qualifying session. You have to reprove yourself every single weekend. So that’s really nothing new. It just obviously has an added value figuratively and literally when it comes to a contract year and figuring out what the future holds.”

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That picture should get clearer when the negotiating window opens to talk to other teams beyond Andretti. Rossi intends to explore his options, saying he has “a couple of months of buffer before things really start to get crazy in June and July.”

When his last deal was up in 2019, he re-signed with Andretti in July after being courted by Team Penske as the hottest available driver in a thin market. This year, Rossi, 30, likely will be a leading candidate again. Many other contenders (such as teammate Colton Herta) are in multiyear deals, and Rinus VeeKay is the only other active race winner who publicly has discussed 2022 being a contract year.

Though the 2016 Indy 500 winner is coming off consecutive winless seasons, Rossi, who finished second in the 2018 standings and third in ’19, still figures to draw interest – especially if he can get off to a strong start.

Alexander Rossi at Sebring International Raceway testing last week (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

It’s been four years since he stood on the podium within the first three races of a season. In 2018, he opened with two third-place finishes and a victory at Long Beach.

“It’s important that we start the year well, but more so from just a results perspective,” Rossi said. “The contract thing is secondary. Regardless of that, this championship, you can’t start on the back foot. You’ve got to come off strong. If things are going well and the performance is there, and people are happy, then the rest is pretty easy to sort out and line up.”

After a miserable 2020 season in which “we just sucked globally,” Rossi’s results actually regressed last year with one podium (he had five in ‘20), two laps led (after leading 83 in ’20) and a 12.3 average finish (a slight dip from 12.1 in ’20). While he modestly improved in qualifying (8.2 from 8.9), he slipped a spot in the points standings to 10th.

Though he improved on road courses, he lagged the benchmark set on street courses by Herta (who had three wins) while the Andretti organization mostly struggled on ovals.

But Rossi felt the No. 27 Dallara-Honda team “was better from an operational standpoint (than 2020). We made better decisions, executed in pit lane better, the energy was better. The on-track performance wasn’t worse. The results were worse. I threw away a podium at Gateway when I crashed, I had the Laguna contact with Colton, I missed it in qualifying at Long Beach and had an incident in the warmup. We could have had four podiums there. The car was the fastest on track in a lot of areas.

“And despite the challenges and struggles that we had last year coming off a difficult year in 2020, I think still the team has made a lot of progress. And it’s unfortunate that hasn’t always been black and white and easy to see. But internally the atmosphere and the excitement and the optimism for this year is at an all-time high in a lot of ways. So we look forward to just getting on track and having the opportunity to prove that to everyone.”

He’s confident his uncertain future won’t be a distraction, having managed it well in 2019.

“The dynamic of having the off track and on track stuff coexisting is normal,” Rossi said. “I think that you get to this level in this sport by being able to compartmentalize. You should be able to at least. And the pressure to win is there, regardless of whether you’re negotiating or talking to other teams or not. It’s all the same. It’s just an added element that takes place between Monday and Thursday of a race week.”