By now, he’s one of IndyCar’s biggest stars—an Indianapolis 500 winner driving for one of the sport’s most iconic names, and representing one of its biggest sponsors.
But two years ago this weekend, Alexander Rossi was just another rookie making his third-ever start in the series at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Sure, he was a rookie coming in with an impressive pedigree. Rossi’s resume includes four GP2 race wins and five impressive Formula 1 starts for the troubled Marussia squad, even finishing on the lead lap at the United States Grand Prix. That was more than enough to land him a full-time drive at Andretti-Herta Autosport, and the Californian immediately established himself as a comfortable front-runner.
Now a two-time race winner, adding last year’s Watkins Glen checkered flag to his Indianapolis triumph as a rookie, Rossi’s move into the #27 car for this year has already paid dividends in 2018. He sits second in points coming into this weekend, just five back of defending champion Josef Newgarden.
But there’s one thing that’s perhaps even more motivational: he’s got unfinished business in Long Beach.
When Rossi was an IndyCar rookie in 2016, the Andretti-prepared cars struggled to find pace all weekend, and while he finished only one lap down, a lack of cautions and crashes meant he placed 20th out of 21 entries. Last year was a drastic turnaround, as both Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay were serious threats for the win, but a freak engine problem ended Rossi’s race on lap 62 of 85 as he closed in on leader James Hinchcliffe.
By the end of last year, Rossi was one of the hottest drivers in the sport. From Toronto to Watkins Glen, a five-race stretch of some of IndyCar’s most diverse tracks, he tallied a win from the pole, three podiums, and a fastest lap, while leading 76 laps and finishing no worse than sixth at any point. He’s carried that form brilliantly into 2018 as the only driver to podium in both races this year; consecutive third-place finishes in St. Petersburg and Phoenix have made him an early championship favorite.
That’s why this weekend at Long Beach is so crucial to Rossi’s title trajectory.
Going by the season so far, and even by last year’s pace, there’s every reason to think that his current average finish of 19.5 will shrink dramatically. It’s the only street course where that number isn’t in the single digits for him. It’ll give him plenty of momentum going into Alabama (where he ran fifth in 2017) and Indianapolis. And more than that, it’ll erase the bad luck that he’s had at this track more than anywhere else.
If nobody can stop Rossi at Long Beach, who’s going to stop him from steamrolling his way to a title?