When Graham Rahal says he is “proud” of how his Rahal Letterman Lanigan program has performed over the past two seasons, believe him.
Rahal has finished higher than he qualified in 19 of the past 21 races. And in the two outliers – the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge – the car was poised to finish in the top five before trouble felled him.
“And how many top-five (finishes) out of those (19)?” he said this week. (The answer is 10.) “This year in particular, the number of top-fives (six) has been tremendous, with a sixth and a seventh thrown in.
“Look at that average; it’s extremely good.”
That Rahal has been one of INDYCAR’s best race-day drivers over the past two seasons isn’t a surprise as that’s been a hallmark of his career. But it would seem he has taken it to an even higher level over the 21 races, although he hasn’t won a race. On average, he gains nearly seven positions per race.
“I feel like we’re racing well, and as a team our strategies have been vastly improved, our pit stops have been phenomenal all year, and all those things come together and provide decent results,” Rahal said. “Even if I look back at (this year’s) Indy 500 and St. Pete, those were races where we were solidly in the top five (before) they slipped away.
“I feel like everybody (at RLL) has done a really good job. I feel like it’s been a really solid year.”
Rahal heads to Saturday’s Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway sixth in the standings and driving the No. 15 One Cure Honda, having gained three championship positions with last weekend’s fifth-place finish in the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville, Tennessee. One hundred twenty-four points out of the series lead, Rahal likely won’t win the championship this year, but he would be in the thick of the title chase had his left rear tire not come off the car following his Lap 118 pit stop in the Indianapolis 500.
When the car slammed the SAFER Barrier in Turn 2, NBC’s broadcasters instantly sensed Rahal’s emotional pain.
“A massive chance (lost),” Leigh Diffey said.
Said Townsend Bell: “He had the car, he had the (track) position, they saved the fuel. Just an absolute gut punch in the biggest race of the world.”
Rahal also described it as “a gut punch.”
As Indy was a double-points race, the difference between finishing third, the lowest Rahal believes he would have finished, and 32nd-place, where he did finish, was 60 points. Had Rahal received those points, he would be fourth in the current standings, 64 points out of the lead, with five races to go. Certainly, he would still be in contention for his first series title.
“Unfortunately, the facts are that’s what happened,” he said.
The good news is, the IMS road course has been one of Rahal’s best tracks since it debuted on the INDYCAR schedule in 2014. He has nine consecutive top-10 finishes on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile circuit, with a pair of second-place finishes and a fifth-place finish in this year’s GMR Grand Prix despite taking contact in a Lap 1 incident that started with Simon Pagenaud and Conor Daly making contact.
Rahal pitted so the crew could assess potential damage, and they decided their best chance to recover the lost track position was to massively save fuel. Rahal noted that from the restart on Lap 4 to the checkered flag on Lap 85, he lost only four seconds to the leader.
“Given that we were in an insane fuel-saving mode the entire race, that’s pretty good,” he said.
Rahal has led six of the 10 IMS road course races and, consistent with his recent results, has finished an average of 6.1 positions higher than where he has started.
“There’s no doubt that we’ve been very consistent (on the IMS road course),” he said. “We’ve had a lot of top-fives there and a couple of podiums. It’s another place where we’ve been so close to winning there several times, but we haven’t been able to get over the hump.”
Qualifying better would certainly help. Rahal said other drivers seem to put more strain on their tires in qualifying than he does, which leads to them being less consistent in races. That’s how he capitalizes, he said.
Rahal’s pursuit of another strong weekend begins Friday with an hour-long practice at 3 p.m. ET (live on Peacock Premium, NBC Sports’ streaming service). Qualifying is set for 7 p.m.
Saturday’s Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Saturday (NBCSN and the INDYCAR Radio Network).
“We’d like to get one this time,” Rahal said.