FORT WORTH, Texas – Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing saw one of its drivers reach the podium in the drama-filled DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday night. It just may not have been the driver many expected.
Graham Rahal rallied at the end of the 248-lap race to finish third in the No. 15 Fleet Cost & Care Honda. Teammate Takuma Sato, meanwhile, blazed from the pole position and led the first 60 laps before a scary incident on his first pit stop resulted in a penalty that put him laps down. Sato finished 15th in the No. 30 ABeam Consulting Honda.
Sato led for the first time ever in 11 TMS starts from the drop of the green flag and was poised as a viable threat for the win. It all came undone, however, when he came roaring down pit road on Lap 61. Replays showed Sato’s brakes locking up as he entered his pit, with the car sliding through his stall, hitting left-front tire changer Chris Welch and coming to a stop in the adjacent pit of Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Despite being knocked to the pavement, Welch hopped up and helped the No. 30 crew in moving the car back into its pit and completing the four-tire change and fuel fill-up. Sato was assessed a stop-and-go penalty that put him out of contention for the win. Welch was evaluated and released from the track’s infield care center, though he was replaced by another crew member for Sato’s remaining pit stops in the race.
"I'm deeply sorry,” Sato said after the race. “The guys built a great car today and then I blew it. I overshot the pit, and fortunately, no one was seriously injured."
Welch displayed the determination of all over-the-wall crew members when interviewed later in the race on NBCSN’s telecast.
“I'm all good,” he said. “A few aches and pains. They did a bunch of X-rays, nothing's broke – scraped-up knee.”
Even after he was hit, instinct and adrenaline took over.
“I got hit, I got knocked down, I got right back up,” Welch said. “I got right back up and went right for the car to get it back in the box. I mean, that's what you're trained to do. That's just part of it. I'm right there doing it. So it happens, it's not the first time. I've had it happen here before, so that's just the dangers of the job.
“These (drivers) put their life on the line and so do we (the pit crews). That's why we enjoy it.”
The night was slightly less adventurous for Rahal, who started ninth but ran a longer first stint than anyone to take the race lead on the lap when his teammate made the fateful pit stop. Sticking to a three-stop strategy, Rahal emerged from the second round of pit stops in sixth and seemed destined for a finish there.
But when Scott Dixon and Colton Herta crashed in front of him on Lap 229, Rahal advanced to fourth place. A congested restart on Lap 236 saw Rahal accidentally run into the back of Simon Pagenaud. With Pagenaud concerned about a possible tire puncture from the contact, Rahal completed a pass around the outside through Turns 1 and 2 to claim his first podium of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season.
“It feels great. I think at this point we feel like all year we've worked hard, we've been close, but we just haven't been able to knock the door down,” Rahal said, also heaping praise on his race engineer, Allen McDonald (shown talking with Rahal), who joined RLL this season.
“Our guys have done a great job this year. I think we rebounded well. ‘Old’ McDonald, my engineer, has done a heck of a job bringing life back into this organization. You can see it, he and Eddie (Jones, Sato’s engineer), work so well. With Takuma, you're seeing that as well.
Through nine races, Rahal sits eighth in the championship – 156 points behind leader Josef Newgarden. Sato is fifth, 95 points out of the lead. Rahal will gladly take the momentum of his Texas finish into the second half of the season that begins with the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America on June 23 (noon ET, NBC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
“This is a great way to go into an off weekend,” Rahal said. “Would rather have it be a win, but all things considered, we're going into an off weekend on a high note.
“We've been there every race this year. It just hasn't come together for us. It's just nice to finally have a good, clean one.”