Despite no wins yet, Rossi showing no sophomore slump

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Alexander Rossi has raised his game.

A sophomore in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season, the 25-year-old Californian has five top-10 finishes in eight races after recording six all last season. He’s already matched last year’s top-five total (two) and number of laps led (23).

However, the stat most important to Rossi is the number by the win column and it remains at zero so far in 2017. A potential victory escaped Rossi at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April. He was running second and chasing down eventual winner James Hinchcliffe when mechanical issues ended his day on on Lap 62 of 84. At the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil last month, Rossi came in as the defending champion, qualified third and put in a strong performance before settling for seventh.

Heading into this weekend’s Rainguard Water Sealers 600, the Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian driver attributed his elevated pace to a better understanding of each circuit. But some of that knowledge can be thrown out the window at Texas Motor Speedway, which underwent a complete repaving and reconfiguration of Turns 1 and 2 since the completion of last year’s race in August.

Turns 1 and 2 have been widened from 60 feet to 80 feet, and the banking has been lowered from 24 degrees to 20 degrees. The repave of the entire 1.5-mile oval changes the grip level dramatically.

Despite the changes, Rossi said this week that he doesn’t foresee a repeat of his rookie visit to TMS when he finished 11th in the race.

“I didn’t think about it that way,” said the driver of the No. 98 Andretti Autosport/Curb Honda, who, like most of the rest of the 22-car Verizon IndyCar Series field, had the opportunity to test the new configuration and surface in April.

“It’s different but it’s not that different, right? I mean it’s not like we’re going the other direction or something. It definitely took some getting used to (Turns) 1 and 2 because you get into a rhythm of what you think it’s going to be and then it’s not that.

“I think that’s what the test was for, was to get everyone kind of adjusted to (Turns) 1 and 2. (Turns) 3 and 4 is the same, if not a little bit easier now because of the repave.

Rossi did admit to a steep learning curve in the 2016 race at Texas. It was his first event at a high-banked superspeedway and he had to become accustomed to the nuances of Firestone’s tire selection for the event.

“I think last year was a pretty big eye-opening experience in terms of it was the first oval I was on where tire degradation was a pretty big factor,” said the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner. “Going into it this year, I’ll be aware of that and I think that’ll carry forward as a benefit, for sure.”

Currently sitting seventh in the championship standings, 57 points behind leader and four-time series champion Scott Dixon, Rossi has seen the carousel of winners this season with seven different drivers visiting victory lane in the first eight races. He yearns to add his name to this list this weekend.

Last year’s race in Texas featured a thrilling victory by Graham Rahal, who edged Hinchcliffe by the closest finish in the track’s history at 0.008 of a second. Could Saturday night be Rossi’s turn?

“I’d like to hope so and we’ll be the eighth winner, so that’ll be cool,” said Rossi, the 2016 Sunoco Rookie of the Year in the Verizon IndyCar Series. “I think it definitely shows how diverse and competitive this championship is. I think that stat speaks for itself.

“It’s an honor to be able to race in the Verizon IndyCar Series and, when you do win, it’s a pretty big accomplishment. It requires perfect execution and a lot of things going your way to actually get a race win here, so it’s a pretty tough challenge.

“You’ve got to maximize each opportunity that comes your way.”

Practice is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. ET today (live stream on RaceControl.IndyCar.com), though rain soaked the Fort Worth, Texas, track early this morning. Qualifying begins at 3:15 p.m. with coverage on NBCSN commencing at 3:30 p.m. A final practice is set for 6:45 p.m. (RaceControl.IndyCar.com). Follow Indycar.com and @IndyCar on Twitter for schedule updates.

Saturday’s live broadcast of the 248-lap race airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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