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.”

AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing
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Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”