BY JIM MILLER WEEKLY INDYCAR WRITER
INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Motor Speedway squeezed to capacity with its first sell-out in history. Following the traditional pre-race festivities honoring America’s veterans, IndyCar rookie Alexander Rossi dutifully followed team orders and added to IMS’s history by winning the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor.
Driving the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda (Andretti Autosport-Herta), Rossi literally coasted across the finish by stretching his last tank of fuel over the final 36 laps around the hallowed 2.5-mile oval, running dry as he entered Turn 4 on the final lap. The car’s momentum was enough to carry Rossi across the finish line 4.4975 seconds ahead of teammate Carlos Munoz, the largest margin of victory since the 1996 race.
Rossi ran out of fuel on his cooldown lap and got a splash of gas from the Holmatro Safety Team allowing him to get to Victory Circle under his own power.
Rossi, a 24-year old California native but now an Indianapolis resident, became the 10th rookie in Indianapolis 500 history to win the race and the first since Helio Castroneves in 2001. This was Rossi’s sixth race in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“I have no idea how we pulled that off,” a stunned Rossi admitted in Victory Circle after drinking and then pouring the celebratory bottle of milk over his head. “We struggled a little bit in the pit stops but Bryan (Herta) came up with an unbelievable strategy. I can’t believe we’ve done this!”
James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt Peterson Motorsport) led the field from the green flag and battled with Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay taking turns with the lead over the first 32 laps. Constantly in pursuit were Josef Newgarden (Ed Carpenter Racing) Andretti Autosport’s Townsend Bell, Team Penske’s Will Power, and Munoz.
No one seemed to be able to take command and hold the lead, and the day saw experienced drivers taking themselves out of contention with unexplained crashes such as defending Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya (Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) who hit the wall exiting Turn 2 on Lap 64, and dust-ups in the pits causing them to be penalized; Will Power was handed a stop-and-hold penalty as a result of exiting his pit and squeezing Tony Kanaan (Chip Ganassi Racing) against the pit wall, and on lap 177 Townsend Bell was released out of his pit and while attempting to get around his teammate Hunter-Reay caromed off Castroneves and into Hunter-Reay who was just pulling away. Hunter-Reay led a race-high 52 laps and went on to finish 24th.
It was an exciting Indianapolis 500 that saw 13 drivers swap the lead 54 times – the second most changes in Indy 500 history (68 in 2013) and seventh most for any Indy car race – Rossi led just 14 laps. There were only six caution periods totaling 46 laps. The race took exactly three hours and two seconds with a winning average speed of 166.634 mph.
Rossi, an unknown to most IndyCar fans, has vast experience mostly on street and road courses while chasing his dream of driving in Formula One. Last year he had five starts in Formula One driving for Manor Racing, with his best finish coming at the Circuit of Americas in Austin where he came in 12th. Manor Racing was unable to sign him as a primary driver, so Rossi joined Andretti Motorsports earlier this year.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” Rossi said. “In February I wasn’t even thinking about Indy car, and now we’ve just won the Indy 500. Thanks to an amazing group of people who gave me an opportunity to come here this year.”
The win was Andretti’s fourth as an owner in the “500,” moving him to fourth all-time behind Roger Penske (16 wins), Lou Moore (five) and Chip Ganassi (five).
For Munoz, it marked his second runner-up Indy 500 finish in four tries. The Colombian placed second to Tony Kanaan in 2013 to earn rookie of the year honors.
“I was really disappointed when it comes to fuel (strategy) and you lose the race because of that,” the 24-year-old said. “I was really disappointed to get second. Half a lap short, that’s what it took.”
Josef Newgarden finished third in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing.
Kanaan was fourth in the No. 10 NTT Data Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing, leading 19 laps. It was the 12th Indy 500 that Kanaan has led, second only to A.J. Foyt’s 13.
The next event on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, featuring the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit, the only doubleheader race weekend on the 2016 calendar. The June 4 and 5 races air at 2:30 p.m. Central Time on ABC.