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2019 IndyCar Review and Top 10 drivers

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2019 IndyCar Review and Top 10 drivers
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Oct 22, 2019, 7:14 PM

Team Penske-Chevrolet's Josef Newgarden earned his second IndyCar title in three years, but as well as the usual suspects – including Indy 500-winning teammate Simon Pagenaud – Newgarden faced strong opposition from a couple of brilliant rookies. Meanwhile, nine wins from Penske wasn't enough to stop Honda beating Chevrolet to the manufacturers' crown for the second straight year. David Malsher reflects on another entertaining season.

Overview

 

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

“F****** hell, Tim Cindric is gonna win this championship, isn’t he?” one IndyCar paddock member exclaimed at Texas Motor Speedway, as Andretti Autosport-Honda’s Alexander Rossi flashed past the checkered flag less than a second behind Josef Newgarden’s Team Penske-Chevrolet. “That’s the second time in two weeks that he’s managed to pull something out of his ass that gets Newgarden ahead of Rossi.”

It’s fair to say that Rossi shared the observer’s sentiments, and it’s not hard to see why. At Detroit, last year’s championship runner-up had been leading Race 1 when Team Penske president and Newgarden's tactician Cindric had called in his man from third place… just a lap before the full-course yellow flew for second-placed Scott Dixon crashing out after making a rare error. The field bunched, Newgarden cycled into the lead as everyone else of significance hit pitroad, and over the course of the remaining laps in a shortened race on a damp track, Rossi couldn’t find an opening with which to make one of his typically bold passing maneuvers on the 2017 champion.

The next day, in Belle Isle's second race, it was Newgarden who blundered into the tire wall, Dixon who won, but Rossi could salvage only fifth. A week later in Texas, Rossi appeared destined for at least a podium finish on a night when Newgarden seemed to be heading for a finish in the lower reaches of the Top 10. However, having gone off strategy with an early pit visit, Cindric was able to delay Newgarden’s final stop, and as everyone else pitted, the Penske driver suddenly had a clear track on which to set some searing times in clean air and was able to emerge ahead of Rossi and in the lead. Try as he might, and he did, the Andretti pilot could not find a way back past his bête-noir.

Newgarden leads Rossi in the first Detroit race.

Newgarden leads Rossi in the first Detroit race.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

At Road America, Rossi dominated just as he had in Long Beach back in April but Newgarden was fast enough to clock podiums in both events, and the pair were just one place apart in Toronto. Then Newgarden dominated Iowa while Rossi could finish no better than sixth.

In retrospect, it’s easy to say it was game over from that point, for Rossi never really gained traction thereafter. Sure, Josef exchanged fourth place for 14th place and a trip to a gravel trap at Mid-Ohio after a wild misjudgment on the final lap – but then Rossi was wiped out in an opening lap crash at Pocono.

That is not to say that Newgarden is an unworthy champion; far from it. While he didn’t impress quite as much as in his first title year, he was far more consistent than in 2018, racking up 13 top fives (including four wins) from the year’s 17 races – a near-Dixon-like accumulator of points. That he reached such a high level in his first year with Gavin Ward as his race engineer speaks volumes for both of them. And if Josef uncharacteristically soft-pedaled in the final two races, well, sotto voce was what the occasion demanded and almost every driver would have done the same in those circumstances.

But Rossi was even better, despite leading ‘only’ seven races to Newgarden’s 11, and 182 laps to Newgarden’s 490. The ex-Formula 1 driver’s bravery as he tried to compensate for a pace disadvantage to eventual winner Simon Pagenaud in the Indianapolis 500 was as breathtaking as his determination to salvage something from COTA, after the unfortunately timed caution period denied him a certain win, given erstwhile leader Will Power’s mechanical DNF.

Rossi's Andretti Autosport-Honda flayed the opposition at Road America (pictured) and Long Beach.

Rossi's Andretti Autosport-Honda flayed the opposition at Road America (pictured) and Long Beach.

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

Rossi was criticized on occasion in 2018 for being overaggressive when making passes and running too near his own limit, therefore risking errors. But in 2019, he seemed to get it just right, knowing exactly when and how hard to push and rarely leaving himself vulnerable to others’ indiscretions. This was particularly admirable from Toronto (Round 11) onward, when it would have been so easy for him to overcompensate once Chevrolet had taken a step forward in terms of torque and fuel efficiency – and possibly horsepower, depending whose opinion you sought – to become a match for Honda on road and street courses.

At the top end, Chevy was already more than a match for Honda, as Rossi had discovered while trying to hang onto Pagenaud at Indy. At the end of Simon’s desultory 2018 season, when he could rarely find a confidence-inspiring setup for running his car on the edge in qualifying, he and race engineer Ben Bretzman told people they’d made a breakthrough at the Sonoma finale, and eventually that did become apparent in 2019. It took a while before that improvement was noted due to errors and red flags disrupting his progress in qualifying sessions, consigning the #22 Penske to the lower half of the grid. But Pagenaud’s beautiful yet aggressive drive in the wet at the IndyCar Grand Prix on the IMS road course was a confidence-building breakthrough, and his sheer composure in the Indy 500, despite Rossi’s pressure, signaled that he was back in business.

There was clearly more work to do – Simon was slow in qualifying at Detroit, Road America and Portland and somewhat anonymous on raceday at Mid-Ohio, Iowa and Gateway – but he was also brilliant at Toronto (as usual) and fast at Pocono and Laguna Seca. In other words, on his best days Pagenaud looks like the polished yet also aggressive performer we saw in his three seasons with Schmidt Peterson Motorsport and his 2016 title-winning year at Penske.

Nope, we never got tired of seeing little Norman celebrating with his human daddy.

Nope, we never got tired of seeing little Norman celebrating with his human daddy.

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

Dixon’s defense of his fifth IndyCar crown was generally as impressive as you’d expect, and the Chip Ganassi Racing legend relished being able to pool information with a genuinely fast teammate, rookie Felix Rosenqvist. Even though the Swede’s speed initially gave him a little trouble, Dixon learned well and improved himself, as all the greats do.

“Felix is fast but we knew that ever since he first tested for us a few years back,” Dixon told Motorsport.com just past midseason. “He’s made a couple of rookie mistakes, but he’s got a really good way of breaking down technical areas he wants to focus on, probably because of all his experience in other series. I’d say it’s actually because he’s a rookie – but a really good one – that he’s been able to help the team and help me. He’s got a fresh perspective on it all.”

The main reason Dixon didn’t score a sixth championship is that most of his chief rivals appeared to have learned from his amazing consistency in 2018, and had endeavored to emulate it. So when he got caught up in someone else’s accident at Indy (a double-points hit) and had to pit for repairs, and then made uncharacteristic errors resulting in DNFs in two of the next three races (hitting the wall in Detroit Race 1, squeezing down on Colton Herta at Texas), Scott fell from second in the championship to fifth. Thereafter, he was back to his consistent best, but mechanical issues in Gateway and Portland ripped the heart from his renewed title challenge.

Another year, another Dixon victory at Mid-Ohio. And this is a particularly cool angle of the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda.

Another year, another Dixon victory at Mid-Ohio. And this is a particularly cool angle of the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Power was wretchedly unlucky to miss out on wins in the opening two races (wrong strategy at St. Petersburg, mechanical failure and a badly timed caution at COTA) but he then didn’t help himself with little errors at Long Beach and the Indy 500, both of which cost him top-three finishes. At Detroit he was scintillating in both races, but could translate only one of those performances into a podium due to a pitstop faux-pas that saw him released with only three wheels properly attached. He made a complete mess of Toronto and then blew potential runner-up finishes at Iowa and Gateway with little errors with big consequences. Finally he nailed a couple of wins and everything started to flow once more – but too late to gun for Newgarden’s points lead. Power admits he should have been more canny and less desperate while seeking his first win of the season, and if he quells his tendency to allow frustration to induce errors, expect a very different 2020 from the 2014 champion.

Gut-wrenching disappointment for Power at Circuit of The Americas where mechanical failure would rob him of victory.

Gut-wrenching disappointment for Power at Circuit of The Americas where mechanical failure would rob him of victory.

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

With three poles and two wins in his rookie season, Herta had the same impact on the IndyCar scene as a 20-ton meteorite landing in Time Square. Casualties in terms of reputation and value included some longtime series veterans who suddenly appeared overrated and dispensable, and also recent freshmen who had hitherto been regarded as promising but now looked mediocre. Herta and eventual Rookie of the Year Rosenqvist immediately got with the program, survived tricky spells where they were clearly trying too hard, and wound up seventh and sixth in the overall standings respectively.

Herta, of course, became the youngest ever IndyCar winner and while there was sporadic speculation regarding the legality of his Harding Steinbrenner Racing entry (nothing illicit was ever brought to light), there are plenty who believe he really is that good. Certainly Michael Andretti does, which is why he’s got him locked down for 2020 in Andretti Autosport ‘proper’.

Herta scored two wins and three poles in his rookie campaign and appears to be a bona fide superstar already.

Herta scored two wins and three poles in his rookie campaign and appears to be a bona fide superstar already.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

As for Rosenqvist, the Ganassi team had to calm him a little, but he was never fazed into reticence while rebuilding his confidence, and by the end of the season Felix looked as fast as he had at the start, but now with a veneer of maturity.

Takuma Sato made some typical blunders but fewer of them, and drove a brilliant race in Barber and a weird but impressive one in Gateway to chalk up two wins for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Given the squad’s braintrust and the talents of Sato and Graham Rahal, RLLR still isn't as consistent as one would expect, yet there are days, as at Barber, when it can run rings around the opposition.

Good surprises this year included Dale Coyne Racing's rookie Santino Ferrucci proving skillful and dauntless on ovals, and Jack Harvey showing a big leap forward in terms of pace as his outings for Meyer Shank Racing became more frequent. Disappointments included how often Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports looked anonymous without Robert Wickens in the cockpit – although James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson were also bizarrely unlucky – and how disrupted Carlin’s season became due to driver line-up changes.

Administration-wise, purists were pleased that race director Kyle Novak continued to avoid throwing full-course cautions whenever possible. Inevitably, over the course of a 17-race season, there would be occasional grumbles along the lines of one driver avoiding deserved punishment, another suffering an overly draconian penalty. But aside from the controversial Lap 1 pile-up at Pocono – opinions remain extremely divided on that one – there was nothing worthy of voluble irritation until the final couple of rounds.

Many were left puzzled by the reordering process after the Lap 1 shunt at Portland since it appeared to be quite random and took too long. And then Rosenqvist was quite clearly screwed over in qualifying at Laguna Seca – not by Race Control’s administrators but by their dearth of options in applying a rule that needs emendation and expansion.

As predicted, rookie Rosenqvist was immediately able to mix it with the established aces, and he'd survive a scruffy midseason to reemerge as a future superstar.

As predicted, rookie Rosenqvist was immediately able to mix it with the established aces, and he'd survive a scruffy midseason to reemerge as a future superstar.

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

Speaking of rules, the fact that backmarkers aren’t expected to obey blue flags and to allow the leaders to lap them on a road/street course is bound to cause friction because it is so open to abuse. Imagine, Team A’s number 1 driver leading Team B’s number 1 driver by 10sec when they come up to lap Team B’s No. 2 driver. Currently there is nothing but old-school track ethics to prevent B2 making a thorough pest of himself by holding up A1 and allowing B1 to close in.

The rule regarding closed pits under full-course yellows also remains a contentious one, even if some still delight in the idea of manufacturing a surprise result by turning the running order on its head. While the rule’s purpose is worthy – to neuter the drivers’ desire to rush past the scene of an accident in order to reach the pits – IndyCar surely has the technology to improve the system, along the lines of Formula 1’s Virtual Safety Car. It's time to stop punishing the drivers who run longer in a stint.

For instance, if all drivers had to hit a speed limiter (similar to that employed on pitlane but set a little higher) within five seconds of a full-course caution, then the safety of neither the stranded driver(s) nor the AMR Safety Team members in attendance at the incident would be compromised, but the pits could stay open and the distance between cars could remain steady. The field would then be bunched up after the pitstop for the restart. Under the current system, unnecessary hazards are created by sending 20-plus cars down pitlane literally nose-to-tail, leaving crew members looking exceptionally vulnerable. 

On to happier aspects of the season. As a swap for Phoenix’s ISM Raceway, the 20-turn Circuit of The Americas road course produced far more racing and intrigue than its predecessor, although the penultimate turn each lap was an ugly farce, so IndyCar needs to find a way to deter drivers from using the Turn 19 run-off as part of the track. But while most expected COTA to produce a good race, far more of a surprise to many was the quality of the show at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. The track surface is so coarse it resists ‘rubbering up’ and is harsh on Firestones, thus there was a variety of tire strategies in play, plus the undulations and dusty runoffs can induce mistakes but the track is wide enough to encourage passing. The majority of the healthy-sized crowd will surely have been enticed to return.

Finally, a shout out to NBC/NBC Sports, which in 2019 became IndyCar’s exclusive carrier. A huge effort was made to make the online element, NBC Sports Gold, a worthwhile addition and by and large it succeeded once some technical difficulties – St. Petersburg and Detroit spring to mind – were ironed out.

NBC Sports' Robin Miller gets the lowdown from Conor Daly, who ran four races for Carlin as sub for Max Chilton.

NBC Sports' Robin Miller gets the lowdown from Conor Daly, who ran four races for Carlin as sub for Max Chilton.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

The on-air talent was generally good. Leigh Diffey and Kevin Lee do their research, have the facts at their fingertips and keep pace with the action, but they also know when to shut up and ask questions of the experts. Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell continue to have good chemistry and explain the drivers’ perspective well, even if their frat house teasing of each other occasionally grates. Robin Miller of course knows how to tell a story and how to interview, and he does both succinctly, so he should be used much more. Jan Beekhuis explains technical matters in a comprehensible manner, but is also good at eliciting responses from drivers, much like Marty Snider. Dillon Welch was a fine no-b.s. addition to NBC’s ranks; and AJ Allmendinger was a good substitute for Bell at Iowa.

For the Indy 500, Mike Tirico was excellent. Like former ESPN F1 host Bob Varsha during coverage of one of the classic grands prix such as Monaco, Spa or Monza, Tirico adds just the right amount of “Wow” factor to convey that the event is momentous, without seeming as if he’s overwhelmed by it.

Race by race

 

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

ST. PETERSBURG
Polesitter Power is called to pits early in reaction to a caution that never comes, putting him needlessly off sequence. On reaching the front again, he is passed on a restart by rookie Rosenqvist who leads 31 laps. However, Newgarden is on the best tire strategy and wins comfortably. Power splits the Ganassi cars after a good battle as Dixon claims second, Rosenqvist fourth.

CIRCUIT OF THE AMERICAS
Power leads from pole, fending off Rossi for 45 of 60 laps, as Herta chases but uses up tires too quickly. Power, Rossi and Dixon go a lap longer than their rivals in the second stint but get hosed by a caution when Rosenqvist crashes at pit-entry. Power suffers a mechanical failure on pitlane. Herta inherits the lead ahead of Newgarden and Hunter-Reay and wins.

BARBER MOTORSPORTS PARK
Firestone throws teams a curveball by bringing old and hardened tires. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing adapts best, sweeping the front row before Sato goes on to dominate and win. Teammate Rahal breaks down on track, allowing Dixon and Bourdais into second and third, the latter having taken just two stops. Newgarden recovers from Penske’s terrible qualifying session to claim fourth.

LONG BEACH
Rossi takes pole and goes on to dominate the race – even more so than at the same venue the year before. Newgarden jumps Dixon and Power in the first round of pitstops and goes on to claim second. Power gets an overboost penalty and then makes an error, handing third place eventually to Dixon – but only after Rahal gets 'pinged' by Race Control for blocking the champ on the last lap. 

INDY ROAD COURSE
Pagenaud scores his first win since 2017 after snatching the lead from Dixon in the wet on the penultimate lap. Newgarden and Hinchcliffe star in the first half of the race until their pit strategies fail, allowing Harvey to score Meyer Shank Racing’s first podium. A tire gamble pays off spectacularly for AJ Foyt Racing as Leist finishes fourth. Rosenqvist starts from pole, finishes eighth.

INDIANAPOLIS 500
A torrid battle for victory sees pole-winner Pagenaud prevail over 2016 winner Rossi, the Chevrolet having a slight edge over Honda. Sato charges through to third, ahead of Newgarden and defending winner Power who serves a pitlane drive-through penalty for knocking his fueler. Ferrucci earns Rookie of the Year after dodging a multi-car crash triggered by Bourdais squeezing Rahal far too hard.

DETROIT 1
A race shortened by 27 laps due to bad weather is won by Newgarden after he pits from third just before a yellow flag – caused by a rare crash from Dixon – bunches the field and puts him ahead of hitherto leader Rossi. Power swiftly scythes through to fourth from mid-grid, but is sent out of the pits with only three wheels, allowing Sato onto the podium.

DETROIT 2
Dixon bounces back to take the win ahead of Arrow SPM's rookie Ericsson. Power claims third despite stalling early in the race when his car gets stuck in gear, legacy of a Lap 1 fracas in which another car rammed his gearbox. Newgarden crashes out while battling with Hinchcliffe and Rossi, the latter of whom spins in avoidance and knocks Hinch into the stricken Penske.

TEXAS
Newgarden wins when Tim Cindric springs him to the front of the pack in the closing stages with the perfect strategy for how the yellows fall. Rossi is again a frustrated second, ahead of Rahal whose teammate and polesitter Sato leads the early stages before a major misjudgment on pitlane, the penalty for which drops him out of contention. Dixon crashes out with Herta, Hinchcliffe crashes out while battling with Rossi, while Hunter-Reay leads 90 laps but finishes fifth.

Newgarden celebrates with his parents Joey and Tina and fiancee Ashley in victory lane at Texas Motor Speedway.

Newgarden celebrates with his parents Joey and Tina and fiancee Ashley in victory lane at Texas Motor Speedway.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

ROAD AMERICA
Herta scores the first pole of his career but immediately loses the lead to Rossi who goes on to win by half a minute ahead of Penske’s Power and Newgarden. Herta wears through tires too swiftly, ultimately falling to eighth, as Rahal claims fourth, ahead of the two Ganassi cars of Dixon and Rosenqvist which rise from 12th and 18th on the grid.

TORONTO
Pagenaud dominates from pole position and Dixon is unable to catch him in the closing stages thanks to the new engine spec from Chevrolet that improves torque and fuel mileage. Rossi claims third, way behind the leaders, but content to beat Newgarden. Also noteworthy is the pre-race ceremony during which Robert Wickens demos an Arrow-modified Acura NSX with hand controls. 

IOWA
Weather delays the race until night, but at the green Power swiftly deposes polesitter Pagenaud to lead 49 laps before being passed by Newgarden. The 2016 Iowa dominator goes on to dominate this edition, too, while Power blunders on pitlane entry, and serves a penalty. A charging Dixon takes second while Hinchcliffe claims his only podium of the year.

MID-OHIO
Sensational pole lap from Power isn’t enough to help earn him his first Mid-Ohio victory as Ganassi employs superior – vastly superior in Rosenqvist’s case – tire strategy to score a 1-2, Dixon on worn tires holding off his rookie teammate by less than 0.1sec at the checkers. Hunter-Reay claims third, while Newgarden spins off on the final lap trying to pass him.

POCONO
Power scores his third Pocono win but his first victory of the season in a shortened event due to bad weather, beating Dixon and Pagenaud. Newgarden is an anonymous fifth but it is a good score on a day when principal title rival (at the time) Rossi is part of a five-car Lap 1 shunt along with Sato, Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe and Rosenqvist.

GATEWAY
Polesitter Newgarden dominates early, chased by Power, but the points leader’s car fades in traffic while Power crashes out. Rookie Ferrucci leads more laps than anyone but has his strategy ruined by teammate Bourdais’ crash, leaving Sato out front fending off fellow veterans Kanaan and Carpenter. Carpenter passes Kanaan but comes up one lap short of claiming victory. Dixon DNFs with a punctured radiator.

PORTLAND
Herta takes pole but is stalked in the first stint by Dixon who swoops for the lead as the rookie’s tires go off. Power fends off the other Ganassi car of Rosenqvist and then inherits the lead when Dixon has to make a long stop for a new battery. Rossi claims third, but Newgarden recovers from a mid-grid start to take fifth, just behind Herta.

LAGUNA SECA
Herta scores his third pole of the season and holds off Dixon for the first half of the race, Power for the second half, claiming his second win. Newgarden initially paces himself based on title rival Rossi but both struggle, and Pagenaud’s fighting fourth place vaults him past Rossi for second in the championship. Following a harsh penalty during qualifying, Rosenqvist charges from mid-grid to claim fifth place and Rookie of the Year.

Top 10 drivers of the year

Takuma Sato leads RLLR teammate Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe at the start of the race at Barber Motorsports Park. Sato would win, Rahal would retire with mechanical problems.

Takuma Sato leads RLLR teammate Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe at the start of the race at Barber Motorsports Park. Sato would win, Rahal would retire with mechanical problems.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

  • 10. Graham Rahal
    Rahal scored just a solitary podium, but he matched teammate Takuma Sato in qualifying, and Portland Lap 1 saw his only major mistake. His main problem was that whenever RLLR had a strong weekend, he suffered bad luck.
  • 9. Ryan Hunter-Reay
    Finally teammate Rossi’s relentless consistency appeared to break the 2012 champion’s spirit, and semi-teammate Herta’s arrival was a further blow. Hunter-Reay looked a potential winner at Texas but led nowhere else and needs a major confidence boost to trigger his raw pace. 
  • 8. Takuma Sato
    Everyone hailed the consistent Sato v2.0 in the season’s first half, highlighted by his domination at Barber. Then he dumped a possible win at Texas, made overambitious maneuvers at Mid-Ohio and (debatably) Pocono and rebounded with a lucky Gateway victory. Lovely guy, complex driver.
  • 7. Felix Rosenqvist
    Rookie Rosenqvist had three seasons in one year – superfast for five races, a difficult middle third and then a flourish in the final third as he stopped overreaching and found a way to keep his abundant pace within the limits of the car.
  • 6. Colton Herta
    Two wins and three poles says most but not all you need to know about this remarkable teenager; equally impressive is the study he puts into his craft to improve as swiftly as possible. A more direct comparison with Rossi in 2020 could prove very interesting. 
  • 5. Simon Pagenaud
    The ‘proper’ Pagenaud re-emerged, earning Penske its 18th Indy 500 win. He was also ferociously quick at Toronto (as ever) and faultless in the wet Indy GP. But too many echoes of his mediocre 2018 qualifying pace stunted his title challenge.
  • 4. Will Power
    As befits IndyCar’s fastest driver, Power again turned the lap of the season (his pole run at Mid-Ohio), but anger and frustration over misfortunes and team screw-ups induced some silly errors until he recaptured his mojo late in the season.
  • 3. Scott Dixon
    Initially caught off guard by teammate Rosenqvist’s pace, Dixon did what true champs do – he learned from the new hotshot, improved, and regained the edge. However, two driving errors and two mechanical DNFs blew up his hopes of a sixth championship.
  • 2. Josef Newgarden
    After 2018’s inconsistency, this year Newgarden scored eight top-fives to back up four wins. The champion isn’t our P1 due to a couple of unforced errors and the fact that two victories owed much to the #2 team’s superior tactics, but no one can deny he was – and is – regularly brilliant.
  • 1. Alexander Rossi
    It's hard to spot his flaws these days. As Andretti Autosport’s de facto lead driver now, Rossi must shoulder some blame for when his car setup was lacking, but in terms of pure driving he was the best this year. Had he been luckier – or Newgarden less lucky – Rossi would have become AA’s first champion since 2012.
Rossi – our #1 of 2019 and a future champion... probably.

Rossi – our #1 of 2019 and a future champion... probably.

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

 

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Series IndyCar
Author David Malsher