No one was more surprised by Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 finish than rookie winner Alexander Rossi, a Formula One driver last season.
After stunning the sellout crowd of 350,000 – and himself – the 24-year-old driver in just his sixth IndyCar Series race sat in his car in victory lane holding his face.
Did you see that look?
“I have no idea how we pulled this off,” he said.
Actually, he did. He got help from strategy advice from Bryan Herta, who used a similar plan to help Dan Wheldon capture his second victory in 2011.
The differences there were that the driver Wheldon was chasing – JR Hildebrand – hit the Turn 4 wall coming to the checkered flag, and Wheldon was already a 500 winner. Rossi had no such experience, but he handled the closing laps expertly.
Rossi won by 4.4975 seconds over a charging Carlos Munoz, with Josef Newgarden right there with the Colombian. Both of those drivers came to pit road for fuel a few laps later, but it was too late.
Rossi’s lap speed on the final circuit was 179.784 mph. That was his average speed, not his speed at the line, which was significantly slower.
Rossi became the first rookie to win the 500 since Helio Castroneves in 2001 – Juan Pablo Montoya had won as a first-timer the year prior – but this was more of a stunner.
Rossi went the final 36 laps on a tank of fuel to win. He was the last of the four full-time drivers Michael Andretti signed for the season.
There have now been 10 rookie winners in 500 history, counting Ray Harroun in the inaugural event in 1911. Louis Meyer, the 1928 rookie winner, had driven in relief of Wilbur Shaw the year prior.
Rossi, of Nevada City, Calif., became the first U.S.-born driver to win the 500 since Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014, but he wasn’t the home-grown soul expected to win. Newgarden led 14 laps – the same as Rossi – but he was a front-row starter. Rossi qualified 11th.
Rossi won in a race featuring 54 lead changes, the second-most in history, with 13 race leaders. He also gave Honda its first victory since Hunter-Reay won.
Tony Kanaan, the 2013 race winner, finished fourth with Charlie Kimball fifth. JR Hildebrand finished sixth with pole winner James Hinchcliffe seventh.
Hunter-Reay got behind because of contact on pit road with another American driver, Townsend Bell. Bell was penalized for an improper lane change, and without a lot of cautions late in the race, that knocked him out of contention, too. Bell finished 21st, Hunter-Reay 24th.
Montoya, last year’s champion, crashed on Lap 64. Montoya became the third winner in history to finish last a year after winning the race. Jimmy Bryan also did in 1959, Johnny Rutherford did in 1977.
Team Penske had a rough day in its 50th year as an organization. In addition to Montoya’s crash, Helio Castroneves took rear bumper contact from Hildebrand and finished 11th, one position behind Will Power, who was penalized for an improper lane change on pit road with Kanaan.
Series points leader Simon Pagenaud finished a lap down in 19th. But his lead slipped to 60 points over Scott Dixon, who finished eighth.