MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. Graham Rahal had another strong campaign for the single-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing squad, and despite a lower finishing position in the standings it was quite possibly the most well-rounded of this excellent three-year run.
Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
- 2016: 5th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 5th, 4 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 8 Top-10, 14 Laps Led, 12.8 Avg. Start, 8.9 Avg. Finish
- 2017: 6th Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 3 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 110 Laps Led, 10.1 Avg. Start, 8.4 Avg. Finish
The third straight consistent, top-six in points performance from the single-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team and driver Graham Rahal proved they are a part of IndyCar’s elite, if that wasn’t already apparent. Toss out the first four races and Rahal would have easily been a proper 2017 title contender, in a year that was an increase both in consistency and results over 2016 – even if weirdly, he ended one spot lower in points thanks to Scott Dixon getting back ahead of him.
Problem was that first four-race stretch was miserable, and out of the gate Rahal was 17th in points, with a 100-point deficit to then-points leader Simon Pagenaud after Phoenix, when he got taken out in the Turn 1 mess. He ended the season only 107 back of Pagenaud and 120 back of champion Josef Newgarden, so it’s easy to note that the rest of the way Rahal was the measure of the Penskes and probably the best Honda on average – even ahead of Dixon.
After a strong INDYCAR Grand Prix race recovery, his luck didn’t change much either in the Indianapolis 500 with a puncture halting a potential win run there, and dropping him to 12th. A tour de force weekend at Detroit followed a week later with a famous weekend sweep – and the fact that it was a Honda driver doing so at a Chevrolet-sponsored weekend with the GM corporate headquarters in the background was not lost on anyone! That vaulted him up to sixth in points at the end of the weekend, only 52 back of new leader Dixon.
Finishes between third and ninth in each of the next six races were solid but unsatisfactory. Rahal felt particularly aggrieved to lose a likely podium, if not possible win, in Toronto after an outstanding qualifying lap that netted him second on the grid – and a lap Rahal called the best of his career – thanks to an ill-timed caution. Lapped traffic drew his ire on several occasions and Rahal, always an insightful quote, wasn’t afraid to speak out about it, notably at Iowa on the short oval and then again at his home race in Mid-Ohio when he felt Esteban Gutierrez interfered with the race’s outcome after the final restart.
An unlucky ninth in Pocono despite a great dice for the lead with Tony Kanaan there and 12th a week later in Gateway put pause to his outside championship hopes, but finishes of fifth and sixth in the final two road course races solidified him as the best finisher outside the Penske and Ganassi teams this season, and ahead of all four Andretti Autosport cars.
Whereas 2015 saw Rahal surprise to contend for the title, and 2016 saw Rahal finish strong despite a yo-yo in terms of results, this may have been his best all-around season of this excellent three-year run that saw RLL consistently the best Honda team in the aero kit period, thanks in large part to its damper work. The in-season turnaround was remarkable; notably in qualifying as the first six races Rahal’s average grid spot was 15.8 and in the last 11 it was 6.9. Given that Rahal and the team were excellent through and through in 2017, it was a shame they ended lower in the standings than they deserved.