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Rookie Alexander Rossi wins Indianapolis 500

Alexander Rossi
Alexander Rossi celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Indy 500 on Sunday.
(Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images)

After parking in Victory Lane, Alexander Rossi removed his helmet and sat motionless in his race car for a moment, seemingly to fully grasp what had just happened.

And why not? Rossi, 24, had won the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie after a stunning turn of events in the closing laps.

The native of Nevada City, Calif., inherited a sizable lead after front-runners Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden and Carlos Munoz were forced to pull into the pits for a splash of fuel.

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Rossi’s car also was running out of fuel on the final lap, and he slowed sharply as he approached the checkered flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But Rossi had just enough speed left to cross the finish line and become the first rookie to win the famed open-wheel race since Helio Castroneves in 2001.

“I just can’t believe that we’ve done this,” Rossi said after taking the winner’s traditional drink of milk. “I’m just so thankful.”

Munoz, a teammate of Rossi’s, finished second. Newgarden was third and Kanaan, who won the Indy 500 in 2013, finished fourth. Charlie Kimball, from Camarillo, was fifth.

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“I really think we had a shot,” Newgarden said. “It just didn’t fall our way.”

While the low-key Rossi benefited from his rivals’ fuel-mileage woes, his victory was not an accident.

Rossi initially set his sights on the Formula One racing series, and he reached that circuit last year when he raced in the season’s final five races for the Manor Marussia team.

But after he failed to secure the seat for this year, he moved to the Verizon IndyCar Series, and Sunday he drove in a car prepared by the veteran IndyCar teams of Andretti Autosport and Bryan Herta Autosport.

Rossi started the race 11th in the 33-car field and, at one point, recorded the fastest lap of the race at 225.288 mph. He also stayed near the front until he could exploit the fuel-mileage battle.

“You can’t undervalue what he did all month,” Newgarden said.

Still, Rossi “had never seen this place until like a couple of months ago,” said team owner Michael Andretti.

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“He really went to school and used his teammates and learned every day throughout the month,” Andretti said. “I saw he was very confident going into the race.”

Until Rossi inherited the lead, it appeared Kanaan, Newgarden and Munoz would decide the race as they kept swapping the lead.

“I’m just sad and really disappointed,” said Munoz, a 24-year-old Colombian. “I knew I didn’t have enough fuel. Half a lap short.”

As in recent years, the racing at the Indy 500 was close. There were 54 lead changes and the top six or seven cars often were separated by less than two seconds.

One of the largest Indy 500 crowds in recent memory, more than 300,000 spectators, witnessed Rossi’s win. With this being the race’s centennial, the event was sold out.

“I am humbled to experience this atmosphere today at this place that is packed,” Kanaan said, adding that he also drove “the best race of my life” despite finishing fourth, “probably even better than when we won in 2013.”

Pole-sitter James Hinchcliffe, making a comeback since being severely injured in a practice crash before the Indy 500 a year ago, was strong all day but finished seventh.

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There were several accidents Sunday but none of the drivers was seriously injured.

Takuma Sato hit the outside wall and finished 26th, as did Mikhail Aleshin (27th) and Sage Karam (32nd).

Just past the halfway point, Townsend Bell and former Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay -- who were leading at the time -- collided while leaving pit row and ruined their chances at winning.

And defending Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya spun and crashed on Lap 64.

Rossi said it was “no secret” that his “goal was to get to Formula One” but that he was “ecstatic” be in the IndyCar series instead, especially now that he’s won the Indy 500.

“It’s obviously a huge honor and privilege, something I’m going to carry with a great sense of responsibility,” he said.

Although Formula One remains elusive, Rossi added, “I think it worked out just fine at the end of the day.”

james.peltz@latimes.com

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

 


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