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Ryan Hunter-Reay is IndyCar’s ‘Captain America’ but Alexander Rossi is closing fast

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – With an international field of drivers, the NTT IndyCar Series is a showcase for diversity. Its driver talent come from every continent on Earth except Africa and Antarctica. The schedule features races on short ovals, superspeedways, road courses and street circuits.

Although it’s an international racing series, all but one race on the schedule is contested in the United States. That’s why it is important to have one racer who can claim the title “Captain America.”

From a career standpoint, Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport has that title with an impressive list of accomplishments including the 2012 IndyCar Series championship, the 2014 Indianapolis 500 victory and 18 wins in a career that began in 2003 and is still going strong in 2019. The 38-year-old driver from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has earned the position as one of the great drivers of his era.

But there are three drivers who are ready to usurp Hunter-Reay as “America’s Driver.”

One is his teammate, Alexander Rossi, who drove to victory in his very first Indianapolis 500 when he won the 100thrunning of the famed race in 2016. The 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has surpassed Hunter-Reay the past two seasons with four wins, including three in 2018 when Rossi finished second to New Zealand’s Scott Dixon in the battle for the IndyCar Series championship.

WATCH: Sunday’s IndyCar season opener at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or via the NBC Sports App

Rossi has displayed incredible brilliance on the racetrack with a very aggressive racing style that has rankled some of the veteran drivers such as four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais of France.

“He was borderline reckless last year, but it has also paid off,” Bourdais told NBC “A lot of those restarts, when that was the only time you could make anything happen, he made it happen. We were all in ‘Wow’ mode from what he did, but that can also fire back and bite you back.

“So far, he has been involved in very little incidents, and he sure has made things happen so good on him.”

Then there is 28-year-old Josef Newgarden of Team Penske, winner of 10 IndyCar Series races – all coming since 2015. Newgarden also won the 2017 NTT IndyCar championship. He won three races and four poles in 2018 but finished fifth in points.

At 30, Graham Rahal is still young by racing standards and has enjoyed a rejuvenation to his career with five of his six wins coming since 2016. He remains the youngest driver in history to win an IndyCar race when he won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008 when he was 19 years, 93 days old.

Although Rahal didn’t win a race last season, he belongs in this category because he is still young enough and has the potential to become a regular race winning driver.

“They are at the top of the spear in IndyCar,” Bourdais said of the American drivers. “All four of them are with great organizations and all stand a super strong chance of winning the championship. They are top contenders for the championship.”

For now, Hunter-Reay is “Captain America,” but he admits he is already feeling the heat from his Andretti Autosport teammate Rossi.

“Absolutely, he has done a very good job,” Hunter-Reay told NBC “He has come to a great team with numerous teammates, and we’ve been working really well together. He had the first year where he was learning quickly and was adapting to something that was completely new, especially the oval side of it. He has it. He’s got it.

“Now, he is getting more and more comfortable with racing week-in and week-out on these different types of tracks and the nuances that you have.

“I expect him to be the challenger again this year, like he was last year. I think he will have a very bright future in the IndyCar Series, no doubt about it.”

Rossi is aggressive on the racetrack and doesn’t care if other drivers find his style over the top. He is there to win and not afraid to try a risky move to get to the front.

“He just gets on with the job,” Hunter-Reay said. “You have to be aggressive. You have to do it. You have to be aggressive to make those moments; to take advantage of those moments when they present themselves. If you are not jumping at those opportunities, they are going to slip by.

“It also takes two to tango. It requires the other drivers around you to be very situationally aware of what is going on and giving each other the space. It’s a dance, the two drivers. When Helio Castroneves and I did that in the 2014 Indianapolis 500, we were doing that. Every lap, we were passing, inside, outside, all over the place. With Alex’s moves and daring, they are very close, but it takes the other drivers being very aware and very professional about the whole situation.”

Rossi has tremendous admiration for Hunter-Reay and considers him an IndyCar mentor in many ways. He believes Hunter-Reay never has gotten the full share of attention that he deserves for leading the American troops in IndyCar.

“Ryan, to me, is really one of the most underrated drivers in the series,” Rossi told NBC “He is immensely talented, and I have learned a huge deal from Ryan. At this point, we work really well together and play off each other well and push each other incredibly hard on the race track and during race weekends. He is an awesome teammate, and I’m lucky to learn from him every week.

“It always blows my mind that people say, ‘Oh, the American drivers. Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal and Alex Rossi.’ What about Ryan Hunter-Reay? He has not only won an Indianapolis 500 but also a championship.

“I’m glad you are not leaving him out of the equation.”

Rossi maintains a great deal of respect for the driver that is 11 years older. As far as the younger drivers, Rossi and Newgarden could make for a great rivalry, but Rossi quickly dismissed that.

“If I’m better than Scott Dixon and Will Power, then I’m probably better than Josef,” Rossi quipped. “I’ll just leave it at that.

“Rivalries for racing drivers are pretty irrelevant. For me, I could care less. I think Josef is an incredibly talented racing driver. He proved that by winning a championship. We don’t really talk or hang out, but that doesn’t make us rivals by any means.

“When the green flag drops, I’ll do whatever it takes to beat him, but that goes for the other 22 guys, not just for him.”

Rossi understands the tremendous value of being the driver that fans cheer for from the United States. At one time, he was destined to be part of an international paddock in Formula One before fate brought him to IndyCar in 2016.

Since then, Rossi believes he has found his home in IndyCar and is an example of the great American talent that is discovering IndyCar as a destination series.

“It’s hugely important,” Rossi said. “IndyCar is an American series with an American fanbase. As much as one day, we would love to be global, that is not the case right now. Because of that, Americans want to root for Americans. That’s in our nature and who we are as patriotic people.

“It’s awesome that there are so many talented guys from the United States that are choosing the NTT IndyCar Series as their home and where they want to establish a career. I think that is an amazing thing for the sport.”

Newgarden takes a much more subdued attitude toward the “America’s Driver” debate. The driver from Hendersonville, Tennessee, who now lives in Davidson, North Carolina, drives for team owner Roger Penske.

It’s more important to Penske to win races and championships than to get involved with another driver in a feud or rivalry.

But Newgarden does understand the importance of having American drivers among the stars of the series.

“I love the diversity in IndyCar racing,” Newgarden said. “I think that is important. It’s not as satisfying to be successful in a series with one nationality. You want to have the best from around the world. You want to challenge people from different walks of life that have all sorts to bring to the table. It makes you feel so much more accomplished when you get to the top of that group.

“For sure, you have to have strong Americans. We are a domestic championship primarily. To have people on your home team to root for, if you are a big fan of a hometown kid, then you want strong Americans doing well in the sport.

“We absolutely have that. We have young guys in the pipeline that have been coming up that are doing such a great job and filtering into the top level. There is a lot of promise and plenty to root for.

“We have strong Americans and strong drivers from all walks of the world. You have to have that mix in the IndyCar Series.”

For now, Hunter-Reay is America’s driver and proud to wave the American flag. That was never more evident than after his Indianapolis 500 victory in 2014 when he wrapped the flag around him as the massive crowd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway chanted, “USA! USA! USA!”

“To do it there, America’s biggest race, the biggest race in the world, that is such an historic, American event to raise that flag up. I was the first American winner since Sam Hornish in 2006 so it had been a while,” Hunter-Reay recalled. “To go back to the most recent American winner from a unified series, it goes even further back to Al Unser, Jr. in 1994.

“I was really proud about it. That’s why when I raised that flag, I was a proud American boy, and this was a lifelong career dream come true. I think the crowd really enjoyed seeing an American win – one that had to fight his way through the thing.

“I think every good driver and every competitive driver wants to the best overall, regardless of nationality. But it’s a cool title to have. It matters because it is an American-based series, and this is our home-grown talent. I came up all the way through the ranks here. I did no time in Europe.

“I’m patriotic. I’m proud to carry the red-white-and-blue.

“That was definitely a great moment.”

It also made Hunter-Reay IndyCar’s “Captain America” and that’s a title he doesn’t plan on giving up any time soon.

“I like the nickname and I’ve enjoyed it,” Hunter-Reay said. “I plan on keeping it.”