Graham Rahal didn’t let his past NTT INDYCAR SERIES performances at Portland International Raceway get in the way of qualifying Saturday, posting a season-best starting spot at arguably one of his worst racetracks.
Rahal drove himself into the Firestone Fast Six for the first time in 2021 and landed the fifth starting spot with a best lap of 59.0067 seconds in the No. 15 Total Quartz Honda on Saturday afternoon for the Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET Sunday, live on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network).
His previous-best start of the season was eighth in July at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. He followed with a sixth-place finish in the race.
Rahal said he and his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team learned something during the Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix last month on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, and it worked when applying it to PIR on Saturday.
“I though it carried over here (from Brickyard), and we’re focused on the race now,” Rahal said. “The Total Quartz car has been fast this weekend. It was good in practice, and we made gains for qualifying.”
Rahal expressed extreme confidence in his team’s ability to convert qualifying effort into a race-winning performance, saying, “we just got to tone her down a little bit for the race.”
But that may be easier said than done for Rahal, who has struggled in the past at the tricky circuit in Portland, Oregon.
In two starts in 2018 and 2019, Rahal finished 23rd in both outings. In both races, he was involved in a Lap 1, Turn 1 incident. In 2018, he was able to complete four laps after starting 10th. In 2019, he completed zero after a 15th-place start.
“I think just being in a better frame of mind from a racing perspective, we’ll be able to keep ourselves calm and get through (Turn 1),” Rahal said. “The (2018 start) wasn’t our fault, the second time certainly was when I hit (Zach) Veach.”
Rahal’s improved starting position gives him confidence to navigate PIR’s tricky Turn 1, a tight right-hand chicane in the middle of a long straightaway.
“I know what we need to do,” he said. “Obviously starting in the third row makes it a heck of a lot easier. We’ll be able to go challenge these guys really hard and try to get a win. It’s been a couple years. With three races left (in the season), we hope we can do it.”
Rahal is looking to score his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES win since 2017 when he swept the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit doubleheader at the Raceway at Belle Isle. While he may be nursing a four-year winless drought, Rahal has been competitive this season in the No. 15 Honda.
He is eighth in the championship standings and has six top-10 finishes this season, including a season-best result of third in the second race at Texas Motor Speedway this season.
Rahal has insisted all season long that with better qualifying results, he and his team could put together better races and finishes. And it appears the Pacific Northwest could be his chance to do just that.
Rahal didn’t just show speed in qualifying, He had solid pace in practice, posting the 10th-best time in the Saturday morning session at 58.9914.
Plus, Portland International Raceway may be a tricky racetrack for him in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, but he’s no stranger to Victory Circle here, having scored his first career Pro Mazda (now Indy Pro 2000) win in 2005 at PIR.