His points finish and race results suggest Graham Rahal basically had the same Verizon IndyCar Series season in 2016 as the year before.
But Rahal is convinced his No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda was actually stronger. It’s just that his bad weekends were so bad and the unlucky moments so unlucky, the year in review looks like deja vu.
In 2015, Rahal won two races and had eight top-five finishes to end up fourth in the points with 490. This season, he won one race and had eight top-five finishes to end up fifth in the points with 484.
The outlook gained a jolt of optimism in the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, where Rahal finished second to series champion Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske. The double-points race on Sept. 18 enabled Rahal to jump two spots to fifth in the final standings.
“We have been better than we were last year, we just haven’t had the luck,” said Rahal, 27. “Last year, things went for us that this year have gone against us. Look at Watkins Glen, for instance, the really unlucky yellow. We’re going to pit two laps after that, we’re going to cycle through, we’re going to be running fifth or sixth. And we had a rocket ship, not a Scott Dixon (eventual race winner) rocket ship, but we had a really, really fast car at Watkins Glen.
“What ends up happening? Unlucky yellow, go to the back, start making mistakes, running with guys I don’t want to be running with and don’t like running with, next thing you know I end up hitting the fence hard.”
The 21st-place finish in the next-to-last race was his worst result.
“That is a minor example of what our year has been like,” he said. “We have had such good speed and performance at a lot of venues, but I can’t get anything to go right. I’m not trying to be a complainer. I look at it and I take a lot of pride in the performances we’ve put on this year.”
Rahal won arguably the most exciting race of this season when he edged James Hinchcliffe by 0.0080 of a second in the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on Aug. 27. It was the fifth-closest finish in series history and closest ever at the high-banked oval known for nail-biting conclusions.
“I’ve pleased with what we’ve done,” he said. "We got a win and I really wanted that, but we could have done a lot better.”
The son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal was once again the No. 1 car with a Honda engine and aero kit, the only Honda among the top nine points finishers.
As the Rahals regroup and look forward, they’ll focus on how the team can be more consistent so it has a realistic shot to finish the 2017 season as the No. 1 car overall.
“We are a top driver-and-team combination,” Graham said. “I really feel that way. And it’s more than just feeling that way, I expect that we are. And I think everybody in this paddock expects that now, too. It’s not ego. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we’re there, we should be there. I expect that of my team and I expect that of myself.
“I think we can be a championship contender. I really believe that. I think we can be and should be.”
His team owner/father won three CART championships and understands the consistency required throughout a season to claim a title. Bobby offered a similar assessment to Graham’s of the year that was.
“On average, our qualifying performances were better this year than they were last year,” said Bobby, 63. “Our pace every given weekend was probably better than it was last year, overall on average. There were some foul-ups. We had a loose brake line for the second Detroit race, which took us from fourth on the grid to the tail end. That very much altered our finish (11th) that day. We shot ourselves in our own foot a couple of times. You look at the Indy Grand Prix, we qualified third and get penalized for being a pound and a half underweight (after qualifying), we start 24th and end up fourth. What if we would have started third? It’s just stuff like that.
“We’re probably very close to what we did last year. In some respects better, in some respects not quite so good, but in general better. It’s been a good year.”
One specific area of emphasis in the offseason will be the Indianapolis 500, where Graham has endured his share of humbling results. May’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil proved to be another frustrating endeavor as Graham qualified 26th and finished 14th.
Graham has had two top-five Indy 500 runs, fifth in 2015 and third in 2011, the latter driving for Chip Ganassi Racing Teams. But the best he’s done in the other seven starts has been 12th, with four forgettable results of 25th or worse including two last-place 33rds.
“Indianapolis, we’ve got to get better because the double-points thing and (points awarded for) qualifying just killed us this year,” Graham said. “We’ve got to stop making the little errors that we’re making.”
Bobby conceded his son wasn’t given the car he needed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“If there’s anything we’re focusing on this winter, and we certainly can’t do it to the demise of everything else, but clearly understanding where we’re missing at Indy, particularly in qualifying. On race day, I think we generally get good race cars, it’s just qualifying. So there’s going to be a lot of focus on that.”
Bobby recalls the strides the team has made since a 19th-place points finish in 2014. After that season, the team hired engineers Eddie Jones and Martin Pare. Graham Rahal and Pare had worked together at Ganassi as well as Newman/Haas Racing.
“You start doing well and, boy, all of a sudden, you can’t wait to go to the track, you can’t wait to get in the car, you can’t wait to have some fun,” Bobby said of 2015. “He had a lot of strong races. Now all of a sudden it’s fun again.
“The kind of driving we’re seeing from him is a reflection of the last two years.”