Ninth. Tenth. Eighth. Ninth.
That’s where Alexander Rossi has finished the past four years in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES standings. His description of that 9.0 average?
“Ninth-place purgatory,” he said.
The driver who challenged for the series championship in 2018 and 2019 hasn’t reached that level in recent seasons, and it is wearing on him. In those four years he has switched teams – now Arrow McLaren after spending his first seven seasons in the series with Andretti Global – and that hasn’t made a difference in the overall outcome.
While Rossi has had many strong drives in that span, he has only one race win and a single pole. If you know Rossi, you know how much being down in the standings bothers him.
“It’s not one thing,” he said of the lack of consistently strong results. “I’ve been stuck in like ninth-place purgatory for now four years. It’s really annoying.”
The winner of the 2016 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, who has seven additional series race wins, points to a single thing that held him back last year: Performance on Saturdays. Specifically, the qualifying sessions at these events.
Rossi’s average starting position last year – 11.3 – was the lowest since his rookie season in 2016. Only three times did he earn a top-five grid position, and eight times in 17 races he started outside the top 10.
While Rossi often raced well, he knows that trying to dig out of such a hole in a series as competitive as this one is a lot to ask. That’s why the bulk of his offseason focus has been on qualifying.
“Figure out what we need to do different, why I need to do different,” he said. “In order to be competitive and to win these races, you have to start in the top six. Yes, obviously there are instances where you can win and (start deeper in the pack), but to be competitive in a (season) championship, you’ve got to start in the top six.
“I think our average qualifying was like 10th (in 2023). That’s really the main reason in my mind why we ended up finishing ninth (on average) because we weren’t starting high enough forward on Sundays.”
Rossi hasn’t been the best qualifier of his era, but he certainly has had better years than last year. In 2018 and ’19, his average starting position was 6.3 and 5.5, respectively, and that likely was a key factor in finishing second and third in the standings. Three of his other seasons in this series saw average starting positions in the 8s, while the past two years he has averaged 10.6 and 11.3.
Rossi noted the many strong performances of Arrow McLaren last year bodes well for this season, and he also believes a second season in the No. 7 Chevrolet will help in performance as he and the crew add to their chemistry and cohesiveness. In particular, he said his program needs to be better on street courses and short ovals, and those comprise 10 of the 17 races.
To Rossi’s point about qualifying, his average starting position in the five street races last year was 14.4 while in the three short oval races it was 15.0. He started 20th and 18th in the doubleheader at Iowa Speedway.
A little luck along the way also is helpful to an improved season. Rossi, like every driver in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, could use some of that, too.
“It’s hard to win races in this series, but yeah, it’s 100 percent achievable,” he said. “When you have the opportunity (to win) and you have the car to do it, you’ve got to get it done. That’s really what it comes down to.
“You’re not going to be the best car every single weekend, but the weekends that you are the best you need to figure out a way to finish it off. That’s kind of been a big team focus this offseason … we’ve got to make a step in qualifying.
“But assuming that all that goes according to plan then yes, I think we’ll definitely be much improved on how 2023 was.”
Rossi begins to embark on that improvement March 10 with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding.