Graham Rahal returns to podium with Detroit Dual 1 runner-up

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Buoyed by the addition of the National Guard as a main sponsor, Graham Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team expected to contend coming into the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Instead, the first five races all ended with poor results – none worse than the Indianapolis 500, which saw Rahal finish 33rd and dead last after an early electrical failure.

But today in Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, Rahal finally broke through for a second-place finish in a Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit Race 1 that shifted repeatedly with various strategy calls.

Rahal moved up and down the pylon himself but was in the Top 5 when a caution with 15 laps to go turned the race into an all-out sprint. After the restart, Ryan Briscoe pitted from the lead with eight to go, leaving Will Power up front and Rahal right behind him.

As the laps ticked away, Power stretched his lead to almost one second before Rahal was able to mount one last charge toward the Australian. Unfortunately for him, he fell just three-tenths of a second short.

“I thought I was finally going to get the monkey off my back today,” said Rahal, who has not won in the Verizon IndyCar Series since doing so in his first-ever series start at St. Petersburg six years ago.

“I knew I had a car that was as quick as his. I knew I had one opportunity and that was on the restart [with 11 laps to go], and he blocked me – which I would have done too, so I don’t blame him.

“But that last run, I thought we put on a charge, we caught him, and started to fade a little bit. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but all of a sudden it came to us, and this National Guard car went right to the front.”

Rahal, who hit the podium for the first time since finishing second last year at Long Beach, said that despite the different strategies, he remained confident in his car’s abilities to make up ground.

“I knew I was one of the few guys that could really drive by a lot of people today,” he said. “So after I saw myself in 13th place after our bad run on the reds, I said, ‘This isn’t over. I can still pass these guys.'”

Now comes the matter of continuing the momentum from today’s result. After Rahal’s Long Beach podium in 2013, he only posted one more Top-5 finish at Iowa for the remainder of that season.

But Rahal, energized with confidence, believes that his No. 15 National Guard team will eventually claim victory – perhaps as soon as tomorrow, which brings Race 2 of the Motor City doubleheader.

“My guys have done a phenomenal job, and I said after Indy, that this was a team made up of champions,” he said. “It was going to come in time, and we’re going to win one. We’re going to do it. I can promise you that.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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