A flawless drive by Alexander Rossi at Mid-Ohio and an almighty gamble on race strategy by his Andretti Autosport team ensured the American scored a second emphatic win of the season.
With the entire field committing to at least three pit stops during the Honda Indy 200, the Andretti team rolled the dice with the only two-stop plan on Sunday. By the end of the 90-lap contest, Rossi owned an unassailable lead of 12.8 seconds over Robert Wickens at the finish line and jumped from third in the championship standings to second behind Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon.
By committing to two stops, Rossi would be required to treat his Firestone tires kindly and save fuel throughout the race as his rivals ignored fuel and tire conservation. If balancing fuel and tire preservation wasn’t enough of a challenge, Rossi also demonstrated immense restraint in order to get the win which came with no caution flags to ease the burden.
Despite posting a best lap that was more than one second slower than the fastest, Rossi stuck to the plan and let the other drivers mash the throttle.
“It’s what we needed,” said Rossi, who sits 46 points behind Dixon with four events left to run. “We said coming in this weekend we needed to execute five weekends in a row. Can’t do any of this without an amazing team around me.
“We knew we could do it. When everyone peels off, it’s hard not to react to that. The Firestones held on great today. They were brilliant. You can’t do 30 laps on any tires without having great rubber around you. That was the result we needed and we’ll take that confidence to Pocono.”
Wickens felt he had the speed to catch and pass Rossi, but lamented getting caught in traffic, which stifled the available pace on fresher tires.
“I was on a three-stop strategy from the beginning. It was qualifying laps every laps,” he said. “That third stint really killed us being stuck in traffic.”
Behind the Honda 1-2 finish, Will Power, who pulled off a daring pass to take the final podium spot from teammate Josef Newgarden, was third, 1.8 seconds back from Wickens’ Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry in his Chevy-powered Team Penske car. The Indy 500 winner pointed to a lack of balance on his final set of tires for being unable to overtake Wickens.
“I needed to push but didn’t have enough at the end,” he said. Power, like many of the drivers who finished behind Rossi, was stunned to learn he lost to a two-stop strategy. “Wow, that’s big fuel mileage,” he added. “Credit to him.”
Newgarden dropped to third in the championship on Sunday, and sang a tune similar to the SPM rookie on why he was unable to finish higher than fourth.
“We just caught traffic at the wrong time,” he said. “You make a bet and hope it works out. We gave it a good shot. We’ll analyze it and go to the next one.”
Continuing the theme of traffic-based limitations, Dixon improved from ninth to fifth, but spent too much time stuck in various packs of cars.
“It was just one of those days where we’d pit to get track position and someone would come out in front of us,” he said. “We just couldn’t get the track position we needed.”
The only mistake Rossi made came on the cooldown lap where he attempted to do donuts and high-sided the car with the rear tires stuck in the grass and the front tires dangling off the ground.
After Rossi, the drive of the weekend went to Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais who started last and motored all the way to sixth. Relentless and aggressive, the four-time Champ Car champion was less than 20 seconds behind the winning Andretti car at the finish.
“That’s the perks of not turning any laps in qualifying — three sets of new alternate tires,” he said. “We ran 90 laps of qualifying pace, and thought we’d need something special with strategy and didn’t know we’d have that kind of pace.”
After Bourdais, a number of impressive drives were recorded as his countryman Simon Pagenaud made a pilgrimage from 17th to eighth, Zach Veach improved from 12th to 10th in his first IndyCar race at home in Ohio, and Pietro Fittipaldi, despite suffering badly from pain in his mending legs and ankles, showed great inner resolve to keep going and finished his first IndyCar event in 23rd.
Beyond Rossi and Bourdais, the lasting memory from the event might come from the 188 passes that were completed.
“I think it’s this new car,” Newgarden said. “You can slide it, it’s more forgiving. Because we don’t have so much downforce on it, it doesn’t snap the string as quickly.”
If there was one major disappointment, it was found in the Carlin Racing camp. Starting sixth, Max Chilton’s day was ruined on Lap 1 when he hit and spun Takuma Sato. Chilton would lose time serving a drive-through penalty and then lose more when his team struggled to remove the left-front wheel during the Briton’s first pit stop. He would be credited with 24th and last, one spot ahead of Fittipaldi.