The ingredients are set for Graham Rahal’s big, breakout year

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Graham Rahal is in the best possible position for a true, and overdue, breakout IndyCar Series campaign in 2014.

He’s nearly a decade into his career, but he only just turned 25 in January.

It seems hard to believe, but Rahal first entered the national open-wheel sphere as a then-16-year-old winning the Formula Atlantic class at the SCCA National Championship Runoffs in 2005, the youngest driver to claim that honor at the Runoffs.

A year later, he engaged in a knife-fight with Simon Pagenaud for the Champ Car-backed Formula Atlantic title, but lost. Still, both leapt into Champ Car in 2007, and Rahal was on the podium in only his third race after missing his prom.

He won his first IndyCar-sanctioned start at St. Petersburg in 2008. In 2009, he frequently hassled the Penske and Ganassi squads with the Newman/Haas/Lanigan team as a regular podium visitor and occasional pole sitter.

And yet since that point, it’s been stop-start.

The 2010 season saw Rahal out of a full-time ride; instead he took up multiple opportunities when presented. A switch to Chip Ganassi Racing’s new second two-car team in 2011 didn’t bare the expected fruits of success.

Homecoming last year to his dad Bobby’s operation also didn’t go according to plan. Some highlights happened, but it was a trying season due to some organizational (engineering) changes during the year, and other bits of bad luck that frequently popped up.

The 2014 season is the big reset. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has National Guard backing, and Graham is the Guard’s new face.

The engineering strength has been bolstered with Bill Pappas joining as Rahal’s full-time engineer, with strength in depth of Eddie Jones and new hire John Dick.

Oriol Servia will join for at least four races in the team’s second car, which means the part-time pairing from 2009 at NHL gets reunited.

Add it all up and the ingredients all appear to be in place.

“For us, there’s quite a lot of pride involved in this,” Rahal said at IndyCar media day in Orlando.  “I know Dave (Letterman) is certainly extremely excited, probably the most excited I’ve seen him in years to be involved in a program like this.  So is, of course, Mike Lanigan.

“There is quite a lot of responsibility for us.  On-track performance is key.  We want to do a good job.  But off-track performance is equally as important to the National Guard and we need to make sure the main goals of recruiting and retention are things we carry through each and every day and do the best we can to help them out, try to keep them in the sport as long as we can.”

Graham has learned well from his father, Bobby, in terms of the business side. He’s been a key activator and voice for some of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s new additions this year, notably the new road course race on May 10 (Rahal tested on the course to gauge potential configurations) and the new qualifying format for the Indianapolis 500.

The business on-track, of course, is delivering a package better than a 17.7 qualifying average in 2013, and a points result better than 18th. And Rahal, who’s scored four top-10 championship finishes since 2007 (with a best of fifth coming as an 18-year-old rookie in Champ Car that year), is under no illusions about the challenge it will take to get back to those heights.

“As a team, this elevates us to a whole new level, because it allows us to invest in the people, shock programs that we haven’t had, that the Ganassis, Penskes, Andrettis of the world have,” Rahal explained.

“I think it’s going to help elevate us to a different level we haven’t been in many years, probably since the team was a Ford factory team or funded by Miller or Shell in the old days.  It kind of gets us back to that sort of level.”

The shock program, Rahal said, was night-and-day difference coming home versus being with Ganassi. At CGR, he said they could use four different pairs of shocks per weekend, while at RLL, the options were less.

Rahal though has already gelled with Pappas, and said the feel of the car is much improved.

“When I got out of what was my car last year, and then drove what was a Bill Pappas car for the first time, didn’t feel like the same chassis,” Rahal explained. “The car felt so different it was like driving a sports car versus an IndyCar. It was a completely different sensation.”

On that front, Rahal did get some sports car mileage in this winter too, racing in the BMW Team RLL BMW Z4 GTE car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. His car finished fourth in the GT Le Mans class, an impressive result given the car’s straight-line speed deficit.

Now though, he’ll want some fourths, then thirds, seconds and his elusive second win as he prepares for full year number two home at RLL. They’re family, but it’s business.

“This year I think dad trusts in me a lot to help him when he needs something, needs to get some inside scoop or anything like that,” Rahal explained. “I think we have a very close relationship that I think a lot of people, father-son relationship, whatever it may be, the business can tear that apart, but I think we’re pretty good at balancing that.”

WATCH LIVE: IndyCar at Phoenix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Coverage of the fourth round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, takes place today starting at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after an encore presentation of Phoenix qualifying, which begins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Rick Allen will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 6 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, so 9 p.m. to midnight ET.

Each of the top three drivers on the grid, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and JR Hildebrand, seek their first wins of the year. The first three race winners start fourth (Josef Newgarden), 10th (points leader Sebastien Bourdais) and 11th (James Hinchcliffe).

Track position is expected to be key for the 250-lap race, the first oval event of the season, with passing projected to be difficult – albeit not impossible.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • On the inside of Row 3, is Simon Pagenaud positioned to secure his first oval victory?
  • Will any of the Hondas be able to make significant inroads on the Chevrolets?
  • Is anyone going to be able to make enough gains on pit road to move up the order?

The starting lineup is below:

Monaco apartment bet gives extra spice to race for P5 in Russia

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Remember that episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler go up against Rachel and Monica in a crazy quiz that ends in them swapping apartments for a while?

Well, Formula 1 might be doing its own version on Sunday in Russia.

With Ferrari and Mercedes over one second per lap clear of the rest of the pack, the top four positions seem settled, leaving Williams and Red Bull to battle for P5.

Red Bull has been the third-quickest team for much of the season so far, yet Williams looks more competitive in Russia, with Felipe Massa charging to sixth place in qualifying to split Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

“I predicted them to be quick here. It’s been one of their stronger circuits the last few years, and Massa’s always been pretty handy around here,” Ricciardo said of Williams.

“He got close, split Max and myself. I expect that battle to remain tomorrow. Not expecting to have the battle for the win, I think that’s between Ferrari and Mercedes, but we could have a nice little battle within ourselves for the top five.”

To add an extra twist to things, it turns out that Ricciardo, Massa and Verstappen all live inside the same apartment complex in Monaco – so why not add some extra incentive to the battle?

“I was saying whoever maybe wins our battle tomorrow can get the… Massa or Verstappen, they’ve both got pretty good-sized apartments, so maybe they can give the winner their apartment for the weekend as a bit of a token gesture!” Ricciardo joked to NBCSN after the session.

“Yeah I can give a good party and I will join,” Verstappen added.

Massa laughed before saying: “I hope I will win and I cannot give!’

The race between Red Bull and Williams may be tight, but somehow we doubt remembering that the TV guide goes to Miss Chanandeler Bong or that his job is a transpon… transponster (“that’s not even a word!”) will be much help to Ricciardo, Massa or Verstappen on Sunday.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Saturday edition (VIDEO)

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Life as a rookie in Formula 1 is always tough, but for Williams’ Lance Stroll, his arrival on the grid has been particularly challenging.

Entering F1 as its second-youngest debutant and after an extensive private testing program with Williams last year, big things were expected of Stroll when he made his debut in Australia.

However, his first three races in F1 have been far from ideal, all of them ending in retirement.

The DNF is Australia was the result of a brake issue, while incidents in China and Bahrain – both of which were hard to pin on Stroll – mean the Canadian is without a classified finish to his name.

So how has he dealt with the struggles? To find out, Will Buxton brings you a special edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ to lift the lid on Stroll’s start to life in F1.

You can watch the video in full above.

JR Hildebrand returns in career-best third on grid at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.

In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.

“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.

“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”

Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”

That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.

“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.

“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.

“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.

“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.

“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”

Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.

“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.

“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”

Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.