At various points former Indianapolis 500 winners Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves all thought they were well positioned to claim another Borg-Warner Trophy. Carlos Munoz, who's come close previously, figured this was his time, as did Josef Newgarden.
None of them, however, was reveling when the centennial edition of the Indianapolis 500 concluded on Sunday. Instead it was a 24-year-old rookie named Alexander Rossi, who watched last year's race in a Monte Carlo bar called Stars ‘N' Bars, that pulled off a shocking upset that may be the unlikeliest of any of the previous 99 Indianapolis 500s.
Such a surprise was the outcome that even the winner couldn't comprehend it was him kissing the bricks and pouring milk on his head.
"I have no idea how we pulled that off," Rossi said. "We rolled the dice and we came through and made it happen."
A rookie who never sought glory in American open-wheel racing but chased the Formula One dream just wasn't considered a realistic possibility to win. (Rossi went off as a 60-to-1 longshot.) And yet, there stood Rossi in Victory Lane trying to grasp all that transpired.
Making it all the more improbable was that this came when tradition was omnipresent throughout the Speedway with nearly every living winner in attendance. Cars representing 33 different eras circled the track beforehand, and assorted other tributes to the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing occurred throughout the weekend. It seemed like a ready-made day for a current superstar to grab the spotlight, not for an upstart to emerge victorious.
"I had no idea I'd be in IndyCar, I had no idea I'd be in the Indy 500," Rossi said.
The California native won not because he had the fastest car, he didn't, but because he best executed the principle that has defined the Indianapolis 500 since 1911: On a day when others blundered, were victimized by bad luck or out-strategized, Rossi and his Andretti Herta Autosport team were flawless when it mattered the most, seizing the opportunity before them.
Rossi stretched his fuel 90 miles, further than anyone had gone all afternoon. With team co-owner and former IndyCar driver Bryan Herta continually instructing him to conserve, Rossi nursed and cajoled his car home by pulling the clutch and coasting through the corners. His speed was roughly 40 mph slower on the deciding lap than Munoz, who finished second.
"I can't overstate how hard it was for Alex to do what I was asking him to do on the radio: To drive to a fuel number that was almost impossible, but still keep pace and keep track position," Herta said.
Although not running on fumes coming into Turn 4 toward the checkered flag, the amount remaining in Rossi's tank wouldn't have been enough to fill a small cup. He would in fact run dry on his celebratory victory lap.
A driver who four months ago didn't have a ride, who had contested only one oval race previously (he finished a nondescript 14th), somehow snookered a host of veterans on IndyCar's grandest stage.
"He had no idea. He honestly had no idea," said team co-owner Michael Andretti. "He was 100 percent Europe, the way he was training and everything. He never even saw an oval except for Phoenix (in April) before this. Impressive. Really impressive."
There are myriad ways to win races, and over the years Indianapolis has seen just about all the possibilities. On Sunday, Rossi delivered another.
"He had never seen this place till a couple months ago," Andretti said. "He had no idea. He came in and was on pace, was not intimidated from the first lap on. Really went to school, used his teammates, learned every day throughout the month."
It may not have been Castroneves winning a record-tying fourth time, or Kanaan producing a second wildly popular victory. All of which would have been more than appropiate on Indianapolis' marquee celebration.
This was a rookie about whom few knew. And it didn't matter. Rossi earned his victory on Sunday even if it didn't come in the way many envisioned.