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(Photo: Phil Allaway)

IndyCar Hits the Streets of Long Beach

It’s been a solid start to the 2019 NTT IndyCar season for Alexander Rossi, but rarely an electrifying one. Last year’s championship runner-up has put together a number of workman-like results, but has yet to stand on the podium after three rounds. This weekend, at the newly badged Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, Rossi has a chance to buck that trend and kick-start his much-anticipated campaign for the championship.

One of the premier circuits on the IndyCar calendar, Rossi dominated last year’s trip to southern California, claiming the pole and leading 71 of 85 laps on his way to victory lane. The dominant performance vaulted the American into the points lead and put him in the thick of the title fight up until the checkered flag waved at Sonoma.

A victory, or at the very least a trip to the podium, could do the same this year for the Andretti Autosport driver. Currently sitting fourth in the year-long points standings, Rossi isn’t in any danger of falling out of title contention. This isn’t a must-win situation. But the longer a victory alludes him, the harder it will be to catch up to points-leader Josef Newgarden, who has, so far, looked like he’s in a class of his own. The 1.968-mile street circuit could be Rossi’s last chance to catch up before the series hits the heart of the schedule this summer.

How They’ll Line Up

If Rossi does want to get his championship chase in gear this weekend, he’ll likely have to beat out his teammate to do it. Ryan Hunter-Reay backed up his St. Petersburg speed by putting his DHL Honda P1 in the opening session and P2 in the second, just four-hundredths behind Scott Dixon chart-topping time. But it was Rossi leading the pack at the end of Practice Three, making the Andretti Autosport pair the favorites to lead the field to the green flag tomorrow.

Fellow Chip Ganassi Racing driver Felix Rosenqvist also joined his teammate near the top of the speed charts, putting his Honda-powered Dallara in the top 10 through all three sessions, including finishing Friday afternoon in P3.

In a return to normalcy from last week’s troubles at Barber Motorsports Park, the Chevrolets showing the most speed were those of Team Penske. Simon Pagenaud showed some promise, putting the No. 22 car in the top 10 in all three sessions, along with teammate Newgarden, who was P4 at the end of Practice Two. However, Will Power’s struggles continued. After a long weekend in Alabama, the Aussie was again stuck in the bottom half of the field, never climbing higher than tenth on the time sheets.

This year’s rookies again looked impressive to start the weekend. Colton Herta, COTA winner, went P3 in the opening practice in his Harding Steinbrenner Racing Machine, while Patricio O’Ward, driving in a limited schedule for Carling Racing, put his Chevy in the top five in the second session.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing carried over their speed from last week at Barber where Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal locked out the front row on Sato’s way to victory. Last week’s winner led his group in the first round of qualifying, transferring into the Firestone Fast 12, along with Rahal, sending a message that RLL might be a force to be reckoned with this year. Rahal outpaced his teammate in the second round, advancing to the Firestone Fast Six on his way to a sixth-place starting position.

Pagenaud also looked quick, advancing out of the first round of qualifying, then later making his first Fast Six appearance of the year. He was also joined by teammates Will Power, a bit of a surprise given his relative struggles in practice, and Newgarden, who advanced by virtue of Rosenqvist–P2 at the time–bringing out a red flag, disallowing his time.

While the red flag was a gift for the championship leader, it caught out Hunter-Reay, who hadn’t yet lay down a time worthy of advancing. The Andretti Autosport driver will still start seventh on the grid, but given his practice pace, should still be in contention for the win.

But it will be his teammate, Rossi, again starting from pole position in Long Beach. Gapping Dixon, who will start alongside him on the front row, by nearly three-tenths of a second, Rossi put together the quickest lap of the weekend when he needed it most, setting him up for a prime opportunity on Sunday.

Full Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach Qualifying Results

Who to Watch

With one the car to beat this weekend, Rossi will be looking to take advantage of his speed and set a tone heading into May. With nearly a month before the series takes to the track in Indianapolis, a poor result–and a bigger points deficit–could sit heavy with the California-native over the break. As is the case for any driver, it always helps to head home to IMS with plenty of momentum, and Rossi will do anything he can to make sure that he rolls into Indy on the right foot.

Following his record setting win in Austin, the story was much different last weekend for Herta, and he too will be looking for a solid run on Sunday. Plagued by mechanical issues all afternoon, the 19-year-old went from first to worst, limping home to a 24th-place finish at Barber. How he’s able to bounce back from a disappointing race could give good insight into whether the rookie is a serious contender or if he’ll need a few more years to develop into a championship caliber driver.

The talk around Pagenaud’s poor performance continues and the Frenchman is in desperate need of a quality result. Showing speed in practice is great, but eventually the 2016 champion will need to get back to his winning ways if he wants to keep his seat at Team Penske. A former winner at Long Beach, Pagenaud has a good a shot as any to do so this week on the street circuit where, as we’ve seen in the past, anything can happen.

How to Watch

Sunday’s pre-race coverage begins at 4:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN with the green flag expected to drop at 4:30 p.m. ET. Streaming is available on the NBC Sports App with a cable subscription.

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