Daniel McFadin

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda speaks at a media conference after winning the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
(Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

Graham Rahal able to ‘tame the beast’ of Texas ghosts with win

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FORT WORTH – Graham Rahal swears he didn’t give the final 177 laps of the Firestone 600 a single thought between June 12 and Aug. 27.

“I haven’t thought about it at all until this week,” said Rahal, who was now thinking about nothing else after winning said race by .008 seconds over James Hinchcliffe, a Texas Motor Speedway record.

Rahal and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series have been busy since June, competing in –  and actually finishing – five races since the Firestone 600 was postponed 77 days for rain after reaching Lap 71.

After visiting Road America, Iowa Speedway, Toronto, his home track of Mid-Ohio and Pocono, the 1.5-mile track in North Texas finally, surreally, came back around.

“It’s a very strange thing actually,” Rahal said, still wearing the 10-gallon Cowboy hat awarded to race winners by track president Eddie Gossage. “We came down here this morning, and I don’t know, it was just a weird day to kind of get into the groove of it. It was like, we landed so early, we had so much time to kill, then such a short practice, and then we just go racing.”

Due to what transpired over those five races – not finishing better than fourth after a Road America podium and only leading two laps – Rahal was having very specific thoughts about Saturday night’s race.

“This week I knew, again, because of the year that we’ve had, it was an opportunity,” Rahal said. “I felt like in June we had a great race car, we just didn’t get to see it through and tonight obviously from the front, we went forward, and it was a great night.”

After restarting 12th in a car Rahal described after a brief practice session as a “f—ing rocket,” the No. 15 carved its way through the pack. By the final 25 laps it one of five cars on the lead lap, led by Hinchcliffe.

“I just thought if I could get there, we’d have a good chance, and then we went fighting at the end there,” Rahal said. “I had a lot of front tire degradation. I was having to take the early laps a bit slower to try to save that outside front. You could see Kanaan and (Scott) Dixon even a little bit quicker than me but 15 laps or so into the stint I closed back up because my car, I think, was better on the tires in the long run.”

Then, unlike Hinchcliffe, Rahal’s team decided to pit late for tires under caution. That decision set up an eight-lap sprint that will likely be considered the most thrilling of the season. With three and four-wide racing, it looked like the memorable Indy Racing League races at Texas of a decade ago.

On a night where TMS honored law enforcement, Rahal’s path through the field was oversaw by spotter Steve Turner, a retired police officer from Speedway, Indiana.

“Steve does a great job. But tonight I had to keep my eyes particularly peeled at all times to my mirrors,” Rahal said. “I always trust the spotter but I want to make sure in a lot of cases that we gave ourselves a little extra room.”

In the closing laps, Rahal’s thoughts didn’t drift to those old “pack” races. They went to a more recent Texas visit in 2012. That year, Rahal led 27 laps at the climax of the race with Justin Wilson chasing him. With three laps left, Rahal bounced off the wall out of Turn 4, allowing Wilson to pass him and win.

It would be the last IndyCar win for Wilson, who died a year ago last week from injuries sustained at Pocono Raceway.

“You know what I was motivated by a little bit is I kept thinking about Justin there, because a couple years ago we had a great battle here,” Rahal said. “Quite honestly I was picturing him shooting those things off there the last couple of laps, just trying to get it done for ourselves here.”

That failure in 2012 came in the middle of seven winless seasons for the son of Bobby Rahal. Graham Rahal ended that last season with a win in another tense, hotly contested “pack race” at Auto Club Speedway.

“It’s just nice to kind of tame the beast a little bit,” said Rahal, who has made nine starts at Texas, but only finished in the top 10 three times. “This place is a tough place to win … So it feels nice. To not go through this year winless is the biggest pressure I feel off my shoulders. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to get that over because not that it would have been a dry spell like last time, but I don’t want to have to hear the questions again, so it was nice to just get that.”

Even when Rahal got the win, he was afraid he has celebrated too soon. As his car neared the finish line, he raised his right hand in a celebratory fist before quickly dropping it down right as Hinchcliffe was pulling even with him.

“I was like, ‘make sure his roll hoop says two.’ Looked over and I could see it said two, and I knew I had it,” Rahal said. “Those LED panels that IndyCar started using are awesome.”

The win also gave Honda just its second win of 2016, a year after it earned five. After two months of not thinking about a race, Rahal won’t want to stop talking about it.

“It’s special for us to get a win for Honda for sure, and be able to call corporate on Monday and have a good talk,” Rahal said.

McFADIN: Return of ‘old-school Texas’ worth the wait

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: James Hinchcliffe driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda leads Tony Kanaan driver of the #10 NTT Data Chevrolet and Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda going into the final lap during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
(Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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FORT WORTH – If you squinted hard enough, it was 2002 all over again.

“It took some old-school Texas right there,” said Tony Kanaan, who was actually there. “I had to dig into my hard drive and remember how to do pack racing again, and it worked out pretty well.”

For a few hours Saturday night, it was as if 14 years hadn’t passed since Texas Motor Speedway’s peak era of “pack racing.”

James Hinchcliffe wishes that were the case. If it were, he might have won the 2016 Firestone 600.

“My night was great until about eight minutes to go,” Hinchcliffe joked in the TMS media center after finishing second to Graham Rahal in a race that began 77 days earlier on June 12.

Hinchcliffe led 188 laps between June 12 and Aug. 27, but Rahal led only one – the big one – by a track record .008 seconds.

“I’ve seen so many races won here on the high line, coming to the line because you just have that momentum off of (Turn) 4,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was going — thinking back to my IRL Classic days and Sam Hornish Jr.’s tricks and all the rest of it, but man, Graham just pulled through (Turns) 3 and 4 like no one had all night.”

Hinchcliffe, who lapped the field up to fifth place, said his No. 5 Honda was an “absolute rocketship.”

But after a late afternoon practice session, Rahal told his team over the radio that his No. 15 Honda was “a f—ing rocketship.”

Rahal initiated The Dive as he, Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan approached Turn 3 for the last time.

Other drivers, including Kanaan, had made similar desperate maneuvers in the seven laps since the last restart.

Rahal, who had restarted the race in 12th and at one point in the night survived a four-wide pass, was the only one who made it work.

“Once I could get there, I could drive through them,” said Rahal, who had to juggle battling Kanaan for second while also trying to overtake Hinchcliffe. “It was just a matter of trying to pick your spot, and very fortunately at the end, I knew I was going to have to try to take Hinch to the top side because there was only one way actually to clear him, which was to the bottom, and I was just very lucky it worked.”

After constantly fending off Kanaan, Hinchcliffe had expected to contend with him coming to the checkers. To Hinchcliffe’s surprise, it was the No. 15 that finally bested him as Kanaan settle into third.

“I hadn’t been next to a car all night that cleared me that quickly,” Hinchcliffe said, his right hand on his face in disbelief. “You know, he had the pace when he needed to. That was the time to make that move, and like I said, credit to him.”

Rahal, who won three times in the last two seasons, was gracious to Hinchcliffe as he wore the cowboy hat that winners at TMS are bestowed. The hat he lost to Justin Wilson in 2012.

“I have to thank Hinch a lot because, first of all, we’re flying home together tonight, so at least it’s not going to be awkward,” Rahal joked. “Second of all, he gave me some good room at the bottom and didn’t end up in tears. Have to thank him for good, clean driving.”

As Rahal and his car were pushed toward a waiting victory lane, his teammates would not stop yelling.

Amid the hollers, one gray-clad team member declared simply – “That’s racing!”

Even though he led 188 laps and finished second, Hinchcliffe agrees with those who snatched away his shot to wear a 10-gallon hat and fire off six-shooters.

“I had a blast. That’s the problem. I had an absolute blast. Had I not led every lap of the race, I would be much happier than I am,” Hinchcliffe said. “Certainly at the end we put on a hell of a show for the fans, and that’s what we’re here for … It would have been a lot more boring if some car just won by half a straightaway.”

That’s coming from the driver who until a series of late cautions, likely would have done that exact thing.

“It’s also a lot different than what it used to be,” Rahal said. “It is not just flat-out easy pack racing anymore. I mean, you were lifting a heck of a lot in traffic, but the way these cars suck up nowadays, the draft is huge so it just makes the racing awesome.”

It may have looked like 2002. But in 2016, it might have been better.

Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon fastest in two Firestone 600 practice sessions

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 10:  Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, practices for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Fort Worth – After a 77 day wait, the Verizon IndyCar Series was back on track at Texas Motor Speedway to get ready for tonight’s Firestone 600.

The series took part in two, 10-minute practice sessions ahead of the race’s resumption.

Marco Andretti was the fastest in the first session with a speed of 213.095 mph over teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay (210.859 mph).

The second session was was led by defending Firestone 600 winner Scott Dixon at 214.937 mph. His Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan was second quickest at 214.476 mph. Andretti had the third best speed overall.

James Hinchcliffe, who will be the race leader when it resumes, was seventh fastest overall.

The first 10-minute session had just began when the No. 14 of Takuma Sato broke loose in Turn 4 and hit the wall. Sato was able to leave the car under his own power and was later cleared to participate in the race.

Sato told the Indianapolis Star a right-front rocker broke on the car.

The No. 14 had to be towed back to the garage despite there not being any significant damage to the body of the car.

James Hinchcliffe, who will be the race leader when it resumes, was seventh fastest overall.

Speed chart

TXtimes

Simon Pagenaud: IndyCar’s one-day return to Texas is ‘weird’

Simon Pagenaud. Photo; Associated Press
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FORT WORTH – Yes, it’s absurd.

Simon Pagenaud is still answering questions about the Firestone 600.

That’s what happens when you start a race on June 12 (and meant to start June 11) and never finished it.

Throw in a few torrential downpours, a lack of communication between Texas Motor Speedway and IndyCar, and you have the series returning to Fort Worth, Texas, today. That’s 77 days later that the green flag will drop to finish the last 177 laps of the race.

Pagenaud, who will restart 15th, can’t do anything but laugh at the situation.

“It’s weird, the whole team is only showing up tomorrow and we’re going to have 10 minutes of practice and then race,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports in a phone interview. “It’s going to be a short weekend. Obviously, it’s going to be a pretty short race. It’s going to be a sprint.”

MORE: McFadin column: At least IndyCar is coming back for this Firestone 600

The series completed 71 laps in June before the rain sent teams scrambling for cover in the garage and then away from TMS. They went on to compete in five races before today, with Pagenaud keeping hold of his points leads. That’s after his Team Penske teammate Will Power won three of those races and Pagenaud wrecked at Pocono.

And yes, the remaining 20 cars in the field will be given just 20 minutes to practice Saturday evening – 10 minutes for the front half of the field, 10 minutes for the back half.

After a 77 day red flag, you have to get down to business.

“I don’t know if that’s an advantage or a disadvantage,” Pagenaud said. “We don’t have any time to change anything. They impound the cars pretty quickly after practice, so you don’t get to do anything on the cars. It’s really a driving exercise and nothing else.”

And they’ll be racing at night, with a scheduled green flag just after 8:15 p.m. CT. In June, teams practiced in the mid to late afternoon with the intent to race under the lights.

Then it rained. The green flag dropped well after 2 p.m. CT the next day. Now IndyCar will race in the conditions they originally intended – more or less.

“Because we didn’t practice to race at night, the behavior of the car is going to be different, but we have enough data from years past to know which way it’s going to go and how to balance the car. It’s definitely going to be a bit of a guess,” Pagenaud said. “The best engineer-driver combination should win the race. ”

Through 13 and half races this season, the best combination has been on Pagenaud’s No. 22 car. The Frenchman has four wins and seven poles. Entering 2016, he had only two poles in his previous five seasons.

At Texas, Pagenaud has only one top five (fourth, 2014).

Tonight, Pagenaud (should) get to finish his fifth Texas race and the points leader thinks the two month wait to finish the Firestone 600 will be worth it.

“We might have more edgy cars than during the day,” Pagenaud said. “It’s just something we’ve seen throughout the years. The track just changes when the sun goes down. I think it’s better for the fans. It’s a better show.”

After a record-setting intermission, the show must go on.

McFadin: At least they’re coming back

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 12:  Cars sit covered on pitroad during a rain delay for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 12, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)
(Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)
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FORT WORTH, Texas – Fifteen years ago, a man and his 10-year-old son traveled from Arkansas to Fort Worth, Texas. There was a race to be watched.

It was the Firestone Firehawk 600 – aka, the inaugural CART race at the 5-year-old Texas Motor Speedway, the house that Eddie Gossage built.

On Sunday, April 29, 2001, the 10-year-old and his dad arrived at TMS. They planned to see names like Andretti, Tracy, Herta, Kanaan, Castroneves, Dixon and Brack zip around the 1.5-track for the first time in person.

Instead, they waited. Then waited a little bit more.

Eventually, a voice came over the track’s PA system at noon to let them and the more than 65,000 in attendance know they could go home.

Due to poor decisions, poor communication and the potential for catastrophe from unsafe speeds, the Firestone Firehawk 600 wouldn’t take place that day, or any one after it. It remains the only postponed race to be outright canceled in the history of North American open-wheel racing before the race began.

The trophy for the race still sits unwon in an office overlooking the track.

It’s weird how little can change in 15 years. Especially the names.

Sunday afternoon, another trophy sat on a counter in an office in the TMS Media Center. It was supposed to be awarded to one of 22 drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Firestone 600 on Saturday night.

Drivers with the names of Andretti, Castroneves, Dixon, Kanaan and Rahal.

But the rains came early Saturday afternoon. Then the waiting began.

Waiting that involved as many afternoon showers as there were scheduled start times once the sun set.

After the third start time of 9:30 p.m. CT passed with no word of another one, cabin fever creeped in.

A threshold was crossed when cameras caught pole-sitter Carlos Munoz standing on pit road, holding a binder to his ear like he was talking on the phone. Rain delays with no end in sight will lead many to edge of reason.

The most reasonable occurrence of the night was a group of drivers wading into the grandstands. There they signed autographs for fans who deem the sport worthy of the wait.

That was backed by a soundtrack of jet dryers valiantly trying to dry a track, but lingering humidity and a lack of Air Titans said, “Sorry, try again tomorrow.”

So we did.

Then came the miscommunication and consternation. While not nearly as egregious as what happened in 2001, it was still awkward.

Roughly 20 minutes after the scheduled start time of 2:06 p.m. ET, crews were still on the track trying to dry out portions of the backstretch and the apron.

Graham Rahal said someone needed to “apologize to the fans.”

While Tony Kanaan said he was comfortable with whatever decision IndyCar made, after examining questionable spots on the apron (“It’s like you’d put your hand a swimming pool”) Ryan Hunter-Reay believed if Sunday were a test day, “we wouldn’t be running.”

Gossage later explained the situation, doing his best to be diplomatic about it without disparaging the series that has competed at his track for 20 years.

“I don’t think we’ve been on the same page with that particular matter,” said Gossage, with INDYCAR president of competition and operations Jay Frye sitting to his right. “That’s just a communication thing between us.

“We’re both professional peers and personal friends. (TMS) felt like the track was ready at 10:30 (a.m). INDYCAR, as best we understood, they pulled the jet trucks off the track. They were, as we understood, pleased. All of a sudden we looked up right around 1:00 (p.m.), apparently they found an issue that they felt needed to be addressed in Turn 2.

“But there was no communication. We didn’t know anything about it. So frustrating, but we’re going to work that out. It’s just one of those things. It may be our fault, it may be their fault. Let’s just say it’s our fault.”

Whoever’s fault it was, the race finally started just after 2:44 p.m. ET  – 18 hours after its original time.

About four hours later, after 71 laps had been run – 30 under caution in what looked like a clear attempt to get the race to halfway – a message appeared on the Big Hoss video board and other TV screens throughout the track.

Similar to 2001, it told fans in attendance they could go home.

But in a fortunate twist, it also told them they could come back.

During a joint 20-minute conference, Gossage and Frye explained why – despite the cost to either side – the Firestone 600 of 2016 would be finished on Aug. 27.

Gossage: “Felt like that was the best way to best serve all the fans.”

Frye: “Everybody has got to come back. We want to do this for our fans. We want to finish this event.”

In that press conference – the kind absent in 2001 when CART and TMS couldn’t be farther apart – was a journalist who went to see a race 15 years ago.

Luckily, everyone will get to see a trophy awarded, even if the date inscribed on it is wrong.