INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A new era for the Indianapolis 500 arrived in the form of a most unfamiliar driver.
An American, no less.
Alexander Rossi outlasted his faster rivals — and his fuel tank — for a stunning victory Sunday in the historic 100th running of "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing." The unlikely win allowed the long-suffering Andretti family to celebrate in the biggest race of their storied careers and it left the top drivers in the field fuming over Rossi's good fortune.
Rossi was a 66-to-1 long shot and certainly not the driver anyone would have picked to win. But the 24-year-old Californian used fuel strategy to outsmart a handful of drivers who had the most dominant cars in the race.
Rossi stretched his final tank of gas 90 miles to cycle into the lead as others had to duck into the pits for a splash of fuel in the waning laps. He was sputtering on the final lap, working his clutch and getting screamed at by team co-owner Bryan Herta to conserve fuel, and he ultimately ran out of gas after taking the checkered flag.
His victory celebration came only after his Honda was towed to the party. He sat in the car for some time before climbing out to take that sweet sip of milk.
"I have no idea how we pulled that off," he declared.
"I really was focused on taking it one lap at a time," Rossi said. "The emotional roller-coaster of this race is ridiculous. There were moments I was really stoked, really heartbroken, really stoked. I was like, 'Wow, I'll need to see a psychiatrist after this.'"
Rossi didn't have the speed of Carlos Munoz, who was charging hard over the final 50 miles. But Munoz also had to stop for gas and didn't have a chance to race his teammate for the victory, even though Rossi was running on fumes and completed the final lap at a snail's pace of 179.784 mph.
The Colombian settled for second in a 1-2 finish for Andretti Autosport. He seemed devastated after his second runner-up finish in four years.
"I was really disappointed when it comes with fuel and you lose the race because of that," Munoz said. "I was really disappointed to get second. Half a lap short. What can I say? The only thing I'm clear about is that I will win this race one day."
Munoz has contended at Indy before and he's proven to be fast at the speedway.
Rossi? Well, not many know much about him at all.
He's an IndyCar rookie who has chased a ride in Formula One since he was 10. He left for Europe when he was 16 and never pursued a career in American open-wheel racing. But stuck without a ride this year, he made the decision to return to the United States to race and became the ninth rookie to win the 500 and the first since Helio Castroneves in 2001.
Rossi understood full well that it was strategy that got him this win, and he knows what an Indy 500 victory means.
"I have no doubt it's going to change my life," he said.
Although he's a relief driver for Manor Racing in F1, Rossi has no scheduled F1 races and IndyCar right now is his top commitment. He was lured back to America this year to drive for Herta in a partnership with Andretti Autosport. Herta was the winning car owner in 2011 with Dan Wheldon, the actual 100th anniversary of the first race in 1911, and now can claim a win in the 100th actual race.
"I can't compare (the wins) other than to say I am so happy," Herta said. " I can't overstate how hard it was for Alex to do what I was asking of him on the radio."
This Herta effort relied heavily on its alliance with Andretti, and the family was hoping Marco Andretti would give them their first Indy 500 title since patriarch Mario Andretti won in 1969.
Instead, Marco Andretti never contended on a day at least three of his teammates were clearly among the best in the field. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell combined to lead 64 of the first 119 laps, but the Americans were knocked from contention when Bell clipped Castroneves as he left pit road. The contact caused Bell to crash into Hunter-Reay.
"Ryan and Townsend looked really good up front, we thought they would be the team to beat," team owner Michael Andretti said. "Unfortunately, they had their problem in the pit, which I could not believe, and I thought that may have been our shot at winning."
Herta decided to gamble with Rossi on fuel strategy, and it's the only thing that made him a late contender.
As the laps wound down, American Josef Newgarden and Munoz repeatedly swapped the lead. Both had to stop for gas, Rossi moved into the lead and it was all his from there.
Michael Andretti earlier this month was voted by the 27 living winners as the best driver never to win the race, but he has now won the 500 four times as a car owner.
"I knew Alex was going to try (the fuel strategy), and we said 'Alright, if he's going to try it, we're going to try something else (with Munoz)," Andretti said. "To come home 1-2 is just incredible. It was amazing. I don't know what to say, it's a great day, to be a part of history, to win the 100th running, and to win it with a 1-2 finish is just incredible."
Newgarden finished third and was followed by Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand as Chevrolet drivers took spots three through six.
Newgarden, along with Hunter-Reay, Bell, Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe, had the strongest cars most of the race. Hinchcliffe, the pole winner who missed this race last year after a near-fatal accident in a practice session, faded to seventh despite being one of the best cars in the field.
"If I was in Alex's position, I'd be the happiest person in the world right now, I wouldn't care how we won the damn race," Newgarden said. "Everyone was on different strategies, and they played that strategy. Those guys, to put it politely, weren't as strong as us. They didn't have as strong a chance to win, so they had to mix it up. It worked out at the end for them."
In front of the first sellout in Indy 500 history, Rossi stunned the more than 350,000 fans in attendance. He was in Monaco this time last year for F1's signature race, unsure of what his future held.
"I had no idea I'd be in IndyCar, I had no idea I'd be in the Indy 500," said Rossi, who becomes the 70th winner in race history.
He will now also become the 103rd face on the famed Borg-Warner Trophy.
Joe Maddon laughed when a reporter mentioned the sense of renewal the older Cubs players are feeling now after signing as free agents, enjoying life on a young team with the best record in baseball and the vibrant atmosphere in Wrigleyville.
“They’ve been born again?” Maddon said. “That’s because they’re around Zobrist.”
Maddon can smirk because he knows Ben Zobrist’s journey to the big leagues so well after managing the Tampa Bay Rays for nine seasons. Zobrist, the son of a minister, grew up in downstate Illinois, played at Olivet Nazarene University and helps organize chapel services for his teammates.
But even Maddon hasn’t seen Zobrist play at a higher level than right now, watching this hot streak continue during Sunday afternoon’s 7-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in front of 41,575 at Wrigley Field.
“I’m trying to figure out myself if I can keep this up, to be honest,” said Zobrist, who turned 35 last week. “It just helps when you feel like things are going well up and down the lineup and we’re going to score a lot of runs. It kind of frees your mind up to be able to just try to see the ball and hit it.”
That’s what Zobrist did in the third inning against Vince Velasquez, the talented 23-year-old right-hander who began the day with a 2.75 ERA, a 16-strikeout, complete-game shutout on his 2016 resume and a prominent spot in Philadelphia’s rebuilding plan.
Zobrist launched a three-run homer that flew out toward the right-field bleachers, bouncing into and out of the basket, extending Zobrist’s hitting streak to 15 games, giving him 34 consecutive starts where he’s reached base safely and leading to a three-game sweep of the Phillies (26-24).
“He did have it when he was a baby – he always had a good eye at the plate,” Maddon said. “The difference is when guys get a little bit older, a lot of times they have to commit to pitches sooner. That’s when it goes away, and that’s when they start chasing a little bit more. He’s still quick and short to the ball, so he doesn’t have to commit early.
“He’s covering a greater variety of pitches more consistently. Off-speed, fastball, he’s covering everything probably better than he did when he was younger.”
Zobrist needed to spend parts of three years with Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate before finally establishing himself as an everyday player for the Rays during his age-28/All-Star season in 2009.
Now Zobrist is getting “Benjamin Button” references for his age-reversing start to this season.
“Do I look younger?” Zobrist said. “It’s a matter of just continuing to grow and mature as a hitter. You got to keep doing that. No matter how old you are, you’ve never arrived in this game. This game humbles you quick. And you got to try to stay on top of it.”
That’s why the Cubs wanted Zobrist’s switch-hitting presence in the middle of their lineup, making the Starlin Castro-for-Adam Warren trade with the New York Yankees during the winter meetings and signing the game’s premier super-utility guy to a four-year, $56 million contract.
“Man, he’s raking right now,” pitcher John Lackey said. “When he gets up at the plate right now, we’re just kind of wondering which direction the hit’s going to go. When he gets out, it’s more of a surprise right now.”
Zobrist probably won’t win a batting title – he’s now hitting .351 – and he can’t keep getting on base 45 percent of the time. He pointed out that he didn’t have great at-bats on Sunday, striking out twice and grounding into a double play. But the Cubs have clearly felt the effects from his age-defying start.
“Probably the best I’ve ever had, to be honest,” Zobrist said. “I’ve had some good stretches where I got a lot of hits. But as far as feeling comfortable, seeing the ball, putting good swings on the ball, this is probably the best it’s been for any three-, four-week stretch of time.
“You ride it out as long as you can.”
Maddon keeps thinking about how to manage the workload, to make sure Zobrist stays healthy throughout the season and fresh for October, and thinks focusing on one position (second base) should help. But right now, Zobrist is in the zone.
“Sometimes hitting feels like you’re holding napkins down in the wind,” Zobrist said. “I got to do this and this and this and this. And then you got the ball coming at you. But lately I haven’t even had to do that. That’s the crazy thing about it. After I do my pregame work, I feel pretty locked.”
Admit it, Cubs fans, part of you didn’t like the John Lackey deal, not after watching him pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals and hearing about his reputation with the Boston Red Sox.
Or at least Cubs Twitter didn’t automatically hail this as another genius move for Theo Epstein’s front office when Lackey’s two-year, $32 million agreement leaked before the winter meetings even started at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.
But Lackey has been exactly what the Cubs needed, a snarling personality on the mound and a stabilizing presence in the middle of their rotation. Plus that big-game experience should come in handy for a team that will wake up 20 games over .500 on Memorial Day.
Lackey shut down the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field, throwing seven innings in a 7-2 victory that completed a three-game sweep of a big-market team in the early stages of a full-scale rebuild.
“We’re pretty good,” Lackey said. “There’s still a long way to go, but the potential to do something special is there, for sure. We just got to keep our head down, keep working at it. Don’t celebrate anything too quick. Just keep grinding.”
There really wasn’t much suspense for the holiday-weekend crowd of 41,575. Lackey (5-2, 3.16 ERA) had a seven-run lead with two outs in the seventh inning when he gave up his first and only run – a homer to Tyler Goeddel – and that now makes him 8-for-10 in quality starts in a Cubs uniform.
Just look at how much the Cardinals have missed Lackey’s ability to eat up innings, beginning Sunday with a 4.48 rotation ERA that ranked 11th out of the National League’s 15 teams and now falling 9.5 games behind the Cubs in the division.
The Cubs sensed the price of pitching would explode and pushed to close the deal with Lackey before Zack Greinke’s decision – and after David Price agreed to a seven-year, $217 million megadeal with Boston.
The Red Sox are a first-place team and Price has a 7-1 record – but with an ERA that’s still 5.34 after four straight quality starts and in a division that can be brutal for pitchers.
The Arizona Diamondbacks stunned the baseball world by signing Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million contract and making a blockbuster trade for Shelby Miller, a pitcher the Cubs discussed in depth with the Atlanta Braves.
Greinke is underperforming (6-3, 4.71 ERA), Miller (1-6, 7.09 ERA) just went on the disabled list with a finger injury that sounds more like an excuse for a mental break and the Diamondbacks are fighting to stay out of last place.
These are only snapshots, but the Cubs feel very comfortable paying for Lackey’s age-37 and age-38 seasons, knowing how much he wants a third World Series ring.
“Johnny Lackey is one of those guys – when you grab a lead, he’s almost the perfect pitcher,” manager Joe Maddon, “because he treats every inning like it’s zero-zero, and he just keeps going after you.”