The consensus in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock is that fans are finally beginning to see the true talents of Alexander Rossi.
Although the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda driver won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie last year, he really hadn't established himself as a star in the series. Until now.
His pole on Saturday and win in Sunday's INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen got a huge monkey off Rossi's back and the attention of his rivals.
“You're starting to see the real deal here,” Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden said of Rossi.
“I think Alex is starting to figure things out more and more as we all have. I know for me it's made a huge difference spending time in the championship. He's obviously going to be a tremendous competitor many years to come, in my opinion.”
Rossi began a run of top-six finishes in the past five races with a podium for second at the Honda Indy Toronto in July, which culminated with his win on Sunday at Watkins Glen International.
And the way he and the team did it demonstrates how they've now grow into a strong, cohesive unit that can deal with adversity and succeed. After a fuel probe failure early in the race demanded the next pit stop earlier than scheduled, the team remained calm and got back on the same pit strategy as the rest of the field to put Rossi back in a position to win.
“We had an issue in the beginning with some fuel, the fuel probe, but whatever. It doesn't matter, the team recovered,” Rossi said.
“We had the pace to do it, but it's pretty amazing. It's a huge team effort. I've talked so much about how much we've improved, I'm so happy we're finally able to win.”
Rossi chalks up much of his development into a solid Verizon IndyCar Series driver and success of late to having stability with Andretti Autosport. The transition from Formula One, where he raced for the Manor Marussia team before joining Andretti in 2016, isn't always easy, especially with the mix of ovals and road and street courses in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“I think as a driver, they've helped me improve on track in a huge amount,” he said.
“The whole organization was just able to, in a constructive way, help me get better with that, help me get better on track, help me understand ovals. There were a lot of new things in a very short period of time. There was a lot of key contributors to helping me get adjusted here and to be in a place where we could start to have success.”
He also seems more relaxed and accustomed to the differences between the more guarded stance in Europe and the more open approach of the Verizon IndyCar Series – more so after it was announced Sept. 1 that Rossi had agreed to a multiyear extension with Andretti for 2018 and beyond. Feeling more at home has also allowed Rossi to show off his sense of humor several times this season.
For example, when asked in a press conference at Watkins Glen about a change in expectations in qualifying this year – where he's now disappointed being third or fourth, when last season he would have killed to be 12th – Rossi quipped: “Thanks for bringing that up.”
In reality, the expectations have changed dramatically and Rossi knows it.
“It was difficult last year to put in a really good lap. Race strategist Bryan (Herta) would come over the radio, ‘Yeah, P17.’ You'd be like, 'Sweet, it's nice,’” he said.
“I would still say we're not quite at the point where we would be disappointed with a third. We haven't made very many Firestone Fast Sixes (in qualifying). We haven't been where we needed to be, but the second half of the year has been better.”
With a win under his belt, Rossi simply wants to keep the momentum going in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway, and then pick up next year where he left off in 2017.
“The confidence of the whole (No.) 98 team is at an all-time high,” he said.
“It's important to come at this time of the year. Obviously, we have one race left, but as we start to look and prepare and look for 2018, to be able to end the season on such a high note is pretty special going into the offseason.”
The finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, takes place Sept. 17 and airs live on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Rossi is one of seven drivers still mathematically eligible to win the championship in the race that offers double the normal points.