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

IndyCar Alexander Rossi contract
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

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.”

After New York whirlwind, Josef Newgarden makes special trip to simulator before Detroit


DETROIT – There’s no rest for the weary as an Indy 500 winner, but Josef Newgarden discovered there are plenty of extra laps.

The reigning Indy 500 champion added an extra trip Wednesday night back to Concord, N.C., for one last session on the GM Racing simulator before Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

After a 30-year run on the Belle Isle course, the race has been moved to a nine-turn, 1.7-mile layout downtown, so two extra hours on the simulator were worth it for Newgarden.

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“I really wanted to do it,” he told NBC Sports at a Thursday media luncheon. “If there’s any time that the sim is most useful, it’s in this situation when no one has ever been on a track, and we’re able to simulate it as best as we can. We want to get some seat time.

“It’s extra important coming off the Indy 500 because you’ve been out of rhythm for a road or street course-type environment, so I really wanted some laps. I was really appreciative to Chevy. There was a few guys that just came in and stayed late for me so I could get those laps before coming up here. I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference, but I feel like it’s going to help for me.”

After a whirlwind tour of New York for two days, Newgarden arrived at the simulator (which is at the GM Racing Technical Center adjacent to Hendrick Motorsports) in time for a two hour session that started at 6 p.m. Wednesday. He stayed overnight in Charlotte and then was up for an early commercial flight to Detroit, where he had more media obligations.

Newgarden joked that if he had a jet, he would have made a quick stop in Nashville, Tennessee, but a few more days away from home is a worthy tradeoff for winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – though the nonstop interviews can take a toll.

“It’s the hardest part of the gig for me is all this fanfare and celebration,” Newgarden said. “I love doing it because I’m so passionate about the Indy 500 and that racetrack and what that race represents. I feel honored to be able to speak about it. It’s been really natural and easy for me to enjoy it because I’ve been there for so many years.

“Speaking about this win has been almost the easiest job I’ve ever had for postrace celebrations. But it’s still for me a lot of work. I get worn out pretty easily. I’m very introverted. So to do this for three days straight, it’s been a lot.”

Though he is terrified of heights, touring the top of the Empire State Building for the first time was a major highlight (and produced the tour’s most viral moment).

“I was scared to get to the very top level,” Newgarden said. “That thing was swaying. No one else thought it was swaying. I’m pretty sure it was. I really impressed by the facility. I’d never seen it before. It’s one of those bucket list things. If you go to New York, it’s really special to do that. So to be there with the wreath and the whole setup, it just felt like an honor to be in that moment.”

Now the attention shifts to Detroit and an inaugural circuit that’s expected to be challenging. Along with a Jefferson Avenue straightaway that’s 0.9 miles long, the track has several low-speed corners and a “split” pit lane (teams will stop on both sides of a rectangular area) with a narrow exit that blends just before a 90-degree lefthand turn into Turn 1.

Newgarden thinks the track is most similar to the Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.

“It’s really hard to predict with this stuff until we actually run,” he said. “Maybe we go super smooth and have no issues. Typically when you have a new event, you’re going to have some teething issues. That’s understandable. We’ve always got to massage the event to get it where we want it, but this team has worked pretty hard. They’ve tried to get feedback constantly on what are we doing right, what do we need to look out for. They’ve done a ton of grinding to make sure this surface is in as good of shape as possible.

“There’s been no expense spared, but you can’t foresee everything. I have no idea how it’s going to race. I think typically when you look at a circuit that seems simple on paper, people tend to think it’s not going to be an exciting race, or challenging. I find the opposite always happens when we think that way. Watch it be the most exciting, chaotic, entertaining race.

Newgarden won the last two pole positions at Belle Isle’s 2.35-mile layout and hopes to continue the momentum while avoiding any post-Brickyard letdown.

“I love this is an opportunity for us to get something right quicker than anyone else,” he said. “A new track is always exciting from that standpoint. I feel I’m in a different spot. I’m pretty run down. I’m really trying to refocus and gain some energy back for tomorrow. Which I’ll have time to today, which is great.

“I don’t want that Indy 500 hangover. People always talk about it. They’ve always observed it. That doesn’t mean we have to win this weekend, but I’d like to leave here feeling like we had a really complete event, did a good job and had a solid finish leading into the summer. I want to win everywhere I go, but if we come out of here with a solid result and no mistakes, then probably everyone will be happy with it.”