With year of oval experience, Rossi returns to Phoenix confident

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Alexander Rossi is confident about his chances in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. Not because it’s his second race at the tricky 1.022-mile oval, but because of the circumstances surrounding his first race there.

Confusion about whether he’d committed to the pits too early during last year’s race at Phoenix Raceway eventually led to a penalty and 14th-place finish. Without the mix-up, Rossi believes he could’ve finished much better. Consequently, he feels positive about the possibilities when the green flag flies Saturday (9 p.m. ET NBCSN, Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).

For any rookie, a 14th-place finish at Phoenix is cause for hope. The layout and speeds are notoriously difficult for first-timers. But for Rossi, confusion during a pit stop led to a penalty that dropped the No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda out of contention.

“There could have been even more positives,” Rossi said. “There was a miscue in terms of the team thinking I wasn’t past the pit commit line. I was, but they didn’t think I was. The high-end system from race control was new, and the team was new. It was still kind of chaos for all of us. I was in the pits and probably would’ve come out in second or third with 30 or 40 laps to go, but we got a penalty because I pulled out of pit lane before I got in.”

It was a series of mistakes that Rossi doesn’t blame on his crew, but rather on confusion surrounding the timing system and, since it was just his second Verizon IndyCar Series race, perplexity between a crew and its driver.

“They didn’t want me to get a penalty (for entering the pits while closed during a caution period until the field properly packs up behind the pace car),” Rossi said of his team and then-strategist Bryan Herta. “But then I was running out of fuel under yellow, so I had to pit anyway while the pits were closed. I had to go to the back (of the pack for the restart, by INDYCAR rule) and it was chaos.”

What happened in the weeks following the Phoenix race, of course, is now racing lore. Eight weeks after the turmoil at Phoenix, Rossi and Herta managed their mayhem during the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, nursed a fuel-starved car through the final laps and won.

That, too, gives Rossi confidence heading back to the short oval in the Arizona desert.

“The actual result we could’ve gotten (at Phoenix) would’ve been way better than what we did get, but regardless, it was positive,” he said. “It was the first oval I’d ever done. I’ve learned now since going to other ovals that Phoenix is probably the most difficult oval we’ll visit. The fact that we were able to be a little bit in the mix and didn’t embarrass ourselves is pretty good.”

Part of what struck Rossi about Phoenix was the physical demand of the track. Every lap is raced on the limit at high G-forces of five or more.

“It’s really on the edge,” Rossi said. “It’s just tough to kind of accept that. It’s also the track where we trim out the most from race downforce to qualifying downforce. It’s not a track where you can play it conservative in qualifying and then make it up in the race. It’s so hard to pass there; it’s harder to pass there than it is at road courses. You have to qualify well.”  

The two unique aspects of Phoenix Raceway are the layout and resulting speeds. The track features a relatively flat design with an unusual kink on the exit of Turn 2 – though the kink is not as severe as it was before the track slightly reconfigured during INDYCAR’s hiatus from racing there from 2006-15. Qualifying speeds for last year’s race, the 62nd Indy car event at the track that opened in 1964, topped out at more than 192 mph.

“It’s all difficult and it still will be difficult,” Rossi said. “I don’t know why. It’s because it’s so tight with relatively little banking when you compare it to a short oval like Iowa, where there’s quite a bit of banking. Phoenix has a higher average speed with virtually no banking. It dumbfounds me that the cars are able to do what they do around there.”

Not only does Phoenix encompass all the disciplines of INDYCAR, Rossi says, it puts them in a dramatic, nighttime setting that’s a must-see for race fans.

“It brings all of the challenges that make the Verizon IndyCar Series so difficult into one event,” he said. “It’s the same for everyone, but it’s an amazing thing to witness. We do most of the running under the lights, and the cars at night look unbelievable, which makes the speeds look even more impressive.”

The race weekend opens with a two-hour practice today from 7-9 p.m. ET. Single-car qualifying to determine the Verizon P1 Award pole winner from each of the 21 entrants’ two-lap runs starts at 11 p.m. ET. Both sessions will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com, with qualifying also streaming live on the NBC Sports app.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon is the defending winner of the 250-lap race. Other past Phoenix race winners in the field are Helio Castroneves (2002) and Tony Kanaan (2003, ’04), the two drivers honored Thursday night in Phoenix as they celebrate their 20th season in Indy car racing.

Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix fast facts:

Race 4 of 17 in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season

Track: Phoenix Raceway, a 1.022-mile oval in Avondale, Arizona. The track has hosted 62 past Indy car races since opening in 1964. It conducted two races a year from 1964-72, 1974-79, 1981-82, 1984 and 1986, and one race a year in 1973, ’80, ’83, ’85, from 1987-2005 and in 2016.

2016 race winner: Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing

2016 Verizon P1 Award winner: Helio Castroneves, Team Penske, 192.324 mph (two laps, including track record 192.631 mph (19.0997 seconds) on the first lap)

Tickets and event information: PhoenixRaceway.com

Twitter: @PhoenixRaceway@INDYCAR, #DesertDiamondPGP, #INDYCAR

TV: NBCSN’s live race telecast begins at 9 p.m. ET Saturday. Friday's qualifying airs live on the NBC Sports app at 11 p.m. ET, with a taped relplay at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN.

Radio: The Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network provides audio coverage of every Verizon IndyCar Series session on a race weekend. Practices are available on RaceControl.IndyCar.comindycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app. Qualifying airs on the previously mentioned locations as well as Sirius 212 and XM 209, with the race airing on all of those locations and network affiliates.

#INDYCAR Fantasy Challenge driven by Firestone: Fans can become their own team manager of a four-driver lineup by entering here. Prizes are available after each race and at the end of the season.


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