SONOMA, Calif. — It was just assumed that Alexander Rossi didn't want to be an IndyCar driver when he joined the series. His career had been aimed at making it in Formula One, and when that didn't come together, IndyCar was the only thing left.
So he became the villain, which doesn't at all fit Rossi.
"I don't think perception was accurate or fair," Rossi said about his IndyCar arrival. "That's not who I am. I am a very introverted person and that's not the personality one needs to have to be a villain."
In his third season now in IndyCar, Rossi has proven he does indeed want to be part of the series and perhaps may become its next champion.
Rossi trails four-time series champion Scott Dixon by 29 points going into Sunday's season finale at Sonoma Raceway. It would be an impossible margin to overcome but the finale is worth double points and any sort of error by Dixon would open an opportunity for Rossi.
All he's needed since he got his seat was an opportunity, proven his rookie year when he won the Indianapolis 500 in his first try. It was the 100th running, no less, and Rossi had to flawlessly save fuel to snatch the career-making victory. His transition to the series has been swift and this year he's become a breakout star and the new face of the Andretti Autosport organization.
Rossi has three victories this season and has race-by-race chased after Dixon, who held a 70-point advantage over Rossi earlier this summer. If he can overtake Dixon on Sunday, the 26-year-old would become the fastest to win a championship since Sebastien Bourdais did it in his second CART season in 2004.
His climb has been steady and Rossi believes he's gradually built a strong fanbase. He has a popular podcast with fellow driver James Hinchcliffe, teamed with Conor Daly for a starring stint on "The Amazing Race" and accepted that part of his job as an IndyCar driver is to promote both the series and himself. Rossi didn't fully grasp that when he won Indy three years ago, but now takes pride in helping IndyCar's growth.
"I love this championship and everything it represents," he said. "I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to be here. I wouldn't want to have it any other way."
His route to Andretti wasn't direct or even planned, but Rossi is thrilled his path brought him to IndyCar. Inside the tight paddock and around Indianapolis he's found friends and built relationships — a rarity in the cut-throat European racing circles. Growing up in that environment perhaps gave Rossi a standoffish air that helped perpetuate the myth IndyCar was beneath him.
Rossi's heartfelt Twitter post following his win at Pocono, where Robert Wickens was seriously injured, proved otherwise.
"IndyCar was not my first racing family. But Rob has been a part of my life for many years & now we're in this family together. Hard to celebrate this win when his well-being is priority," Rossi wrote.
Other events at Sonoma:
SAME NAMES AT THE TOP: It's been six years since Ryan Hunter-Reay gave Andretti Autosport its last IndyCar championship, and Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske have dominated the standings since. Dixon won titles in 2013 and 2015, while Penske drivers Will Power (2014), Simon Pagenaud (2016) and Josef Newgarden (2017) added won three championships.
Both Power and Newgarden are still mathematically eligible to win the championship and are tied for third in the standings, but 87 points behind Dixon.
HONDA PREVAILS: Honda has won the manufacturer championship for the first time since Chevrolet returned to IndyCar in 2012. Chevy has been the dominant brand but Honda caught up this season and has won 10 of 16 races.
Yet Honda still isn't satisfied with the season.
"I can't say it's ultimately successful because we did not win the Indy 500 this year," said Art St. Cyr, the president of Honda Performance Development.
Power of Penske won the Indy 500 in a Chevrolet.
FINAL FINALE: IndyCar's 14-year run at Sonoma comes to an end on Sunday. The track has hosted an IndyCar event every year since 2005 and in 2015 it became the season finale. The road course is dropping off the IndyCar schedule next season and has been replaced by Laguna Seca as the season finale.