Finishing second no longer good enough for Alexander Rossi

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Three days before May’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, Alexander Rossi offered a succinct bottom line.

“You could have the best drive of your life and finish second and you’re still going to go home angry,” he said.

The Andretti Autosport driver finished second in that race. After experiencing what it meant to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in 2016, an accomplishment that dramatically impacted his career, coming close to winning again didn’t sit well.

The same could be said for Rossi’s rise to becoming a serious NTT IndyCar Series championship contender. He finished a career-best second to Scott Dixon last year. He is a close second in the points this season, just seven behind Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden heading to this weekend's Honda Indy Toronto at Exhibition Place. (The 85-lap race is Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.)

Rossi has won two races and two poles this season to cement the 27-year-old Californian in the running with seven races remaining. But being second, yeah, it doesn’t sit well at any time.

“No, we’ve already done that once,” he said of being a series runner-up. “I’m not really interested in that. We’re only here to win. We’re thinking about the championship for sure. That was our goal coming into this year. We were close last year and didn’t get it done.

“The whole offseason was focused around building a championship campaign. We’re close. We’re working through it. There are still some areas we need to improve upon. There’s still a lot of races to go. It’s going to be a big fight all the way to the end.”

This championship chase shapes up to be intense. Pagenaud, the 2016 series champion, is 54 points behind Rossi in third. Dixon, a five-time series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing, is 33 points behind Pagenaud. Will Power, the 2014 series champion and 2018 Indy 500 winner for Team Penske, is fifth.

“Dixon is still in it; you can’t count him out,” Rossi said. “There are so many guys now that are capable of winning races, week in and week out. There’s no sense picking and choosing who you are trying to beat. You have to beat everyone. Every mistake at this point is magnified. You’ve got to make sure you’re not making mistakes and maximizing every possible position each race weekend.”

Rossi shrugs at the popular suggestion that drivers just need to ensure they have a shot at the title entering the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. The finale is a double-points race, but Rossi learned from last year’s shootout with Dixon at Sonoma where he needs to be before the final start.

“I don’t really buy into all of that,” he said of just being in contention. “You look at Scott last year and where he was after Portland (with a 29-point advantage) and regardless of anything that I was going to do (at Sonoma) it was going to be pretty hard to beat him.

“You need to go into the final race being the championship leader and at that point you know that if you finish in the top five (at Laguna Seca) you’re going to be able to walk away with (the title). The double points is a unique aspect, but at the end of the day, you still want to go into the finale leading.”

Rossi is on pace to have the best points season of his series career, but he’s a bottom line guy. Where he is positioned in the points is what matters. Being a close second, in the championship or Indy 500, isn’t enough.

“You try and improve every time you get in the car, and every year you want to be better than the last,” he said. “From a points perspective, Josef and I are well clear of where anyone was last year at this point.

“But there are still mistakes. There are still things you want to do differently. We still need to win a couple of races before the year is over. Yes, last year was my first time (to contend) I guess, but I’ve also been doing this a long time so it’s not my first time trying to win a championship.”

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