First IndyCar victory was meaningful in many ways for Felix Rosenqvist
The long wait for his first NTT IndyCar Series victory was followed by a long drive for Felix Rosenqvist.
After winning Sunday at Road America, the Swede made the five-hour trip “straightaway” to his home in Indianapolis for a reunion with his girlfriend, Caroline, whose return to the United States had been delayed because of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic-related travel restrictions.
“She’s been back in Sweden for three months, but she came back in Indy the same day as the race,” Rosenqvist told NBC Sports. “(The victory) was actually the best possible way to celebrate after three months being apart.”
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Rosenqvist, 28, showed massive potential amidst some major heartbreaks last year for a proud No. 10 team that had gone nearly six years without a victory. He then weathered an agonizing start this season as teammate Scott Dixon opened 2020 with three consecutive victories.
The nadir was a crash while running second with 10 laps remaining in the June 6 opener at Texas Motor Speedway. Rosenqvist spun after forcing the issue on the treacherous outside in Turn 2 while navigating lapped traffic and trying to chase down the dominant Dallara-Honda of Dixon. The move earned a call with team owner Chip Ganassi.
“Obviously it was a situation neither him or me wanted to have,” Rosenqvist said. “We know that we are quick and can do great things, but that whole situation was obviously suboptimal.
“Chip’s very short. He just told me, ‘Let’s try to get the points here. And not do rookie mistakes.’ Because I’m not a rookie anymore.”
Rosenqvist said he appreciated the reminder of Ganassi’s direct and no-nonsense leadership style.
“Even with the tough start we had, he’s been very supportive and hasn’t been any strange feelings or anything,” he said. “He’s just been pushing all of us along. And yeah, I think that’s good with him. He will really credit you when you do well, and then he will try to help you in any possible way when you’re not performing.
“It’s very easy, and it doesn’t take many seconds to have a talk with him because he’s honest. There’s so many people in this business that can say one thing and then mean another behind your back. With Chip, what you know you always will have is full support in trying to accomplish the job and also full honesty. That’s all you can ask for.”
Ganassi’s oft-tweeted motto is “#ILikeWinners,” and Rosenqvist was knocking on the door of becoming one since the March 10, 2019 season opener when he finished fourth and led 31 laps in St. Petersburg, Florida, in his IndyCar debut. Though slower to adapt on ovals, he finished second at Mid-Ohio and Portland en route to sixth in the points standings as the 2019 rookie of the year.
That promise made the mediocre results early in 2020 – his best finish was 15th in three races prior to his victory – even more exasperating, particularly when juxtaposed against Dixon’s hot start.
“First of all, I’m happy for Scott because if he does well, everyone is happy on our team, and that’s what drives us forward,” he said. “But obviously it’s frustrating to see the potential the car has, and you’re not able to use it. … When you have your day, that’s when you have to make the most of it. That’s the lesson I’ve learned. Sunday we had one of those days and realized early in the race that, ‘OK, this might be a good chance to win the race, and we have to go get it.’ Every race will not be like that, but the one chance you get, you’ve got to take it.”
It still wasn’t easy as first-lap contact with Graham Rahal damaged the left-front wheel hub of Rosenqvist’s No. 10 Dallara-Honda, costing his pit crew a few extra seconds to change tires on every pit stop.
By running what Ganassi engineer Chris Simmons tweeted were “40 straight qualifying laps,” Rosenqvist still managed to track down Pato O’Ward (who also was seeking his first victory) to make the winning pass with two laps remaining
“That was really big and showed even more what a great race we had that we managed to win it even with that damage,” he said. “I like those kinds of races. You’re not really dependent on other people or how the strategy is. You just get clean air and do what you do best and go fast in the car. That’s what I love. You just go into that rhythm and flow because it’s all going to come down to the last couple of laps and every tenth of a second matters.”
The victory mattered especially to the crew of the No. 10, which won three consecutive championships with Dario Franchitti from 2009-11 but hadn’t been in victory lane since Aug. 30, 2014 in Fontana, California, with Tony Kanaan.
Felix Rosenqvist said longtime No. 10 crew chief Ricky Davis, who has worked at Ganassi for more than 20 years, got choked up Sunday after the victory.
“He has kind of joked that, ‘I didn’t think I would live to see another win,’ ” Rosenqvist said. “He was very emotional about it. He definitely deserves it. Every time we show up he’s just so motivated and ready to go win. That’s why we do it.
“They’ve been fighting so hard for this win. It’s been kind of heartbreaking in the short time I’ve been with the team how close we’ve been, especially with the expectations we had. We felt we can win races. Just hasn’t happened. It was a great monkey off our back. Just a great reminder of how good my crew is. It was so cool to see them celebrating after the race.”