Hard-Charger Style Proving Key for Rahal

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Graham Rahal currently sits sixth in Verizon IndyCar Series points with six races left in 2018. As the highest-ranked driver without a win, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver’s season may seem under-the-radar. Going beyond the running order will show just how impressive the second-generation racer has been in his 12th season.

2018 would get off to a rocky start for Rahal, as he qualified last in the 24-car field at the season opener in St. Petersburg. The 2008 race winner worked his way through the field to finish second. This would mark Rahal’s first podium on the 1.8-mile street circuit since his win ten years earlier.

Following the race, he spoke highly of Honda’s engine program and IndyCar’s Universal Aero Kit.

“Obviously, like I said, Honda has done an amazing job with the engines. The overtake worked extremely well for me. It was very powerful,” he expressed.

Rahal kicked off the season by racing from last to second at St. Petersburg (Chris Jones/INDYCAR)

“I felt like it was a little bit easier to make some passes today if need be. But like I said, I think this is the first of many great races. We’re all just still figuring this thing out. It’s going to take some time, but the first of many great ones for this car.”

With both he and teammate Takuma Sato combining to lead all four February test sessions at ISM Raceway, there was even more optimism for Rahal heading to the first oval of the year.

Rahal turned in his best qualifying effort at the 1.022-mile oval, starting 12th. During the 250-lap event, he would lead seven laps and finish ninth.

A week later, the series returned to a street course, this time it was the legendary Long Beach circuit.

The weekend started off well for the driver of the No. 15 Dallara-Honda, as he qualified fifth, his best start on a road course since Mid-Ohio last year. As the 85-lap race begun, Rahal and his team would quickly find themselves in an adverse situation.

After making contact with Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud in Turn 1 on the first lap, Rahal was assessed a drive-through penalty and Pagenaud’s race was over before it began. Despite the penalty, Rahal fought his way through the field and finished in fifth. After the race, Rahal expressed regret for the opening lap contact.

“I’m sorry about what happened to Simon. That’s not how I like to do things,” he noted afterward.

“It’s just like St. Pete, the rears (tires) locked up and I barely made the corner. I think Dixon bailed out because he thought I wasn’t going to make it.  It hurt my race too obviously with getting the penalty, having to go to the back and battle our way through.”

Even as he left Long Beach third in points, Rahal admitted he had mixed feelings after the race.

“To be third and finish all the laps so far and finish in the top-five a couple of times and get a podium so far is good but this was our best weekend yet.  We deserved to be there this weekend and that’s why it’s a little bittersweet.”

Capping off the three-race swing would be a trip to Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park. In what turned into a timed race following Sunday’s postponement of the race’s completion, Rahal again turned in an impressive drive.

After starting 15th on the grid, he would race his way to seventh in the 82-lap race. The finish kept Rahal third in points headed for the Month of May at Indianapolis.

Three weeks after the Barber race, the Verizon IndyCar Series’ annual trek to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began. Despite leading three laps and improving to ninth from his 17th-place starting spot, Rahal dropped from third to sixth in the points standings.

Once the focus shifted to the 102nd Indianapolis 500, Rahal would not be as lucky. Despite leading the fourth practice session. Rahal and his team struggled to find no-tow speed. He would qualify in 30th for his 11th 500.

After struggling in practice and qualifying, Graham led 12 laps and finished 10th at the Indianapolis 500 (John Cote/INDYCAR)

As the race began, his luck would begin to turn around. Continuing to showcase his hard-charging style, Rahal would find his way to the lead by Lap 97. In the 200-lap race, he would lead 10 laps and finish 10th.

Next up after Indy would be the annual trip to Belle Isle for the Dual in Detroit. Given his 2018 success on street courses and his sweep of the 2017 Dual, Rahal had every reason to be optimistic.

After starting eighth, he worked his way to the front and got as high as second-place. On Lap 46, disaster struck for Rahal. He made a hard impact with the Turn 13 wall and was out of the race, finishing a disappointing 23rd. Despite the crash and dropping to seventh in points, Rahal would turn things around the next day.

In Dual 2, he started in ninth place and fought his way to fifth in the 70-lap race, giving him a third Top Five in four street course races.

Before the next race at Texas Motor Speedway, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing announced a multi-year contract extension with Graham. The deal keeps him with the team through 2023.

“It’s nice to continue the consistency we’ve had in the program,” said Graham. “All of this is thanks to the sponsors that have given our team the stability to allow me to sign for five years.”

Returning to a track where he won in 2016, Rahal would qualify a disappointing 20th. Utilizing the same prowess that netted him a Top 10 at the Indianapolis 500, Graham worked his way up to sixth by the end of the 248-lap race and move back up to sixth in the points standings.

Days after signing a five-year contract extension with RLLR, Rahal finished sixth at Texas (Chris Jones/INDYCAR)

After a much-needed weekend off for the  Verizon IndyCar Series, Rahal would return to action at Road America.

Despite missing the Fast Six on the circuit for the first time, he turned in another strong performance during the race.

From his ninth-place spot on the grid, Rahal found his way to sixth in the 55-lap race, his third Top Ten finish at the Elkhart Lake track.

Last weekend, the series made their second and final appearance on a short oval, this time it was the .875-mile Iowa Speedway.

A track that has typically produced solid results for Rahal would continue to do so. He started 12th and despite finishing a lap down to race winner James Hinchcliffe, notched a seventh-place finish in the 300-lap race.

This weekend, Rahal and the series travels north to the Exhibition Place street circuit in Toronto. In 12 previous starts there, Rahal has led just once, doing so for 23 laps in 2011. Although he has just one Top Five finish (2010), Rahal did start second and finish ninth in last year’s race.

“I’m excited to go back,” he said of this weekend’s race.

“If I look at our street course performances so far, it’s our strongest package. Hopefully, we can just make it happen. Right now, we need to get a win and need to get some points.”

A win would mean joining his father and car owner Bobby (who won the first race at Toronto in 1986) as winners at Exhibition Place. Given his success on street courses with the Universal Aero Kit, Graham Rahal will be among the contenders at the Honda Indy Toronto.

Header image by Shawn Gritzmacher/INDYCAR.

Spencer Neff

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