Rookie Alexander Rossi entered the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season as an unproven shoe, a failed Formula 1 driver looking for a career turnaround.
After 500 miles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he may now be the face of IndyCar and American open wheel racing for years to come.
Rossi stretched his fuel to the brink and coasted across the start-finish line on the 200th and final lap to claim a shocking victory in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
The 100th edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing brought with it extra attention, a 350,000 crowd that rivaled the best of Indy 500 crowds, and heightened expectations from them all.
Incredibly, the race rose to meet those expectations.
With the new rules package seemingly making track position more important, there were worries that this season’s Indy 500 wouldn’t have the tight, fearless pack racing that’s become synonymous with the Month of May for the last five seasons.
Those fears were quickly alleviated.
Starting on the front row, James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay established themselves as early favorites, trading off the lead multiple times in a masterful display of driving.
Over time, other names joined the fold. Josef Newgarden made his way to the front on lap 28. Townsend Bell entered the fray on lap 42, overtaking Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay to place himself out front.
Behind them, a few other contenders slowly began to emerge, and one expected contender dropped out of the running.
Defending Indy 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya struggled early and often in his No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet-Dallara. His struggled would continue until lap 64, when he lost control of his machine coming off of turn 2 and crashed into the outside wall.
Montoya would accomplish a rare – if unwanted – feat: Winning the race in one season, and finishing 33rd the next.
As the halfway break came and went, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan added their names to the fray. Looking for their fourth and second Indy 500 wins, respectively, the two veterans each led laps in the second half of the race.
Andretti Autosport’s chances seemed to take a significant downturn on the penultimate round of pit stops on lap 117.
Following a caution flag for the crashed Mikhail Aleshin and Conor Daly in turn 2, the leaders all made their way to pit road for a round of stops.
Running inside of the top three, Hunter-Reay and Bell were among the first to exit their pit stalls, but when they did, contact with Castroneves sent Bell down into Hunter-Reay, giving the two drivers wing damage and sending them into the inside wall.
Both drivers continued on, but they wouldn’t contend for the win.
While Andretti’s odds were lowered, a new strategy emerged that could give them a victory. Alex Tagliani and Rossi stayed out on the same set of stops that gave Andretti’s top drivers damage. Tagliani inherited the lead, with Rossi restarting behind him in second.
When the green flag fell on lap 121, Rossi quickly went to work, trading the lead with Tagliani for multiple laps and leading until his pit stop on lap 138.
From there, things began to get interesting.
After assuming the lead when Rossi pitted, Castroneves was among a group of drivers on pit road when a caution flag fell on lap 149 for a lost tire.
That caution switched the field of leaders up. Another caution, flying on lap 163 when Takuma Sato got into the outside wall, set the field up for an unpredictable finish.
While almost everyone had pitted on the lap 149 yellow, the lap 163 yellow offered a chance to stretch fuel and go without pitting the rest of the way. Multiple drivers attempted to strategy, including Rossi.
Up front, a group of leaders including JR Hildebrand, Kanaan and Newgarden stayed out, expecting more cautions to conserve fuel.
The field went back to green on lap 167, and to their surprise never saw the yellow again.
With teams needing to go over 35 laps – 87.5 miles – to make it to the finish, many struggled to conserve the necessary fuel.
The battle for the lead was daring. Kanaan, Newgarden and Carlos Muñoz traded the lead off multiple times, but in doing so ran themselves out of fuel.
Kanaan was the first to pit road on lap 192. Newgarden and Hinchcliffe followed two laps later, and Muñoz, too was forced to the pits on lap 196.
With nearly the entire field diving to pit lane, there was just one driver left – Rossi – with a shot at the victory.
“You’re P1. Save fuel, that’s all that matters,” Rossi heard from his crew.
Save he did, and good thing, too. He didn’t have enough fuel to make it.
Rossi took the white flag with a half-lap advantage as the track’s 350,000-plus fans began to stand and cheer. The rookie rifled off into turn 1, through the treacherous turn 2 and shot down the backstretch.
All seemed well for the rookie until suddenly, going into turn 3, he slowed.
Out of gas.
Getting the last fumes out of his machine, Rossi dove to the bottom of the track off of turn 4. He coasted down the long front straight, with the thunderous road from grandstands drowning out his silenced machine.
Behind Rossi, Muñoz and Newgarden closed. Having pitted, the two drivers raced within a second of each other, unsure if they were racing for the win or second.
They would come up four seconds short.
His lead too insurmountable to lose, Rossi coasted his No. 98 Napa Auto Parts Andretti Autosport Honda-Dallara across the yard of bricks, fist pumped into the air.
He had done it. For the first time since 2001, a rookie had won the Indianapolis 500.
“I have no idea how we pulled that off. We struggled a little bit in the pit stops but Bryan (Herta, co-owner Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian) came up with an unbelievable strategy.
“I can’t believe we’ve done this. I didn’t know (if I could make it to the finish).”
The win is the fourth Indy 500 triumph for Andretti, and their first since Hunter-Reay’s victory in 2014. It is Honda’s 11th victory, putting the engine manufacturer one victory behind Miller for second all-time.
Muñoz ended the day in second to give Andretti a 1-2 finish, with Newgarden, Kanaan and Charlie Kimball rounding out the top five.
Hildebrand, Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power completed the top 10.
In the end, even after what appeared to be heartbreak on pit road with Hunter-Reay and Bell, the day went to Andretti.
And as for IndyCar, they may have found a new face to lead them forward. A young American, a spurned F1 driver, a rookie winner in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
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