NASCAR & Auto Racing

IndyCar star on the rise, Nevada City’s Rossi comes home to Sonoma finale

Alexander Rossi reacts after qualifying on the pole for the IndyCar Series race in Watkins Glen, N.Y. over Labor Day weekend.
Alexander Rossi reacts after qualifying on the pole for the IndyCar Series race in Watkins Glen, N.Y. over Labor Day weekend. AP

Heading into Sonoma and Sunday’s season finale, IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi hopes to finish his sophomore season with a flourish in the GoPro Grand Prix.

On Labor Day weekend, the Nevada City native won the IndyCar Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in New York, edging four-time series champion Scott Dixon. Rossi, who also won the pole at Watkins Glen, has finished in the top six in his last five races, including second in Toronto and third at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

His Watkins Glen triumph was only Rossi’s second career victory; the other was the 2016 Indy 500. In the 100th running of the greatest spectacle in racing, he became the first American rookie to win since 1928.

“It’s been a year of missed opportunities and a little misfortune,” Rossi said Wednesday during a quick trip to Sacramento. “We’ve been on pace all year, but things didn’t quite click. ... (The victory at Watkins Glen) was great – and way overdue. It’s good to finally get going and close the season out strong.”

His recent success has helped establish Rossi as a true IndyCar star in the No. 98 for Andretti Herta Autosport.

“I think Alex is starting to figure things out more and more, as we all have,” said driver Josef Newgarden, who leads the IndyCar standings heading into the finale. “I know for me it’s made a huge difference spending time in the championship (hunt). He’s obviously going to be a tremendous competitor many years to come.”

Seven drivers – including Rossi – are still mathematically in the title race. Dixon, Helio Castroneves and 2016 Sonoma winner Simon Pagenaud are within 34 points of Newgarden. With racing luck, Rossi, Will Power and Graham Rahal could steal the crown, too; this race offers double points.

For Rossi, a Sonoma victory would be extra sweet.

“Closing the season at Sonoma, it’s amazing,” said Rossi, who expects to host about 100 guests. “It’s my home track. I’ll have a huge amount of support from friends and family. I love Sonoma; it’s a beautiful part of the world. It’s a great time for people from Northern California to see me race.”

Rossi, who turns 26 on Sept. 25, enjoys Sonoma Raceway, where he competed often as a teen before going overseas to race in Formula One and other open-wheel series.

“Sonoma’s elevation change (160 feet from top to bottom of the 12-turn layout) is great,” he said. “It’s a track I really know well. I grew up at the kart track.

“Sonoma is the exact opposite of Watkins Glen; that’s a super high-speed, high-contact track very much like what I was used to in Europe. Sonoma has less grip and is super dusty, but it’s always suited me very well.”

Did his second season live up to his expectations?

“Oh, no,” he said with a chuckle. “We’re not winning a championship – at least, it’s not likely – but this season was definitely better than last year. Our whole team is taking a big step forward. We need to keep this momentum going strong.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

What: Season finale for the Verizon IndyCar Series; 85 laps (202.7 miles)

When: Friday-Sunday; race, 3:50 p.m. Sunday

Where: Sonoma Raceway, 29355 Arnold Drive, Sonoma

Admission: $15 Friday (practice); $35 Saturday (qualifying); $39-$75 Sunday (race day); $50 Sunday general admission at the gate; kids 12 and younger admitted free all three days.

TV: 3:30 p.m. Sunday, NBCSN

Details: 800-870-7223 ext. 0,