IndyCar: Late Sonoma fuel woes trip up contenders Rahal, Conway

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As the final laps of today’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma played out, fuel came to the forefront as Graham Rahal (pictured) tried to stay ahead of the pack while running low.

But a late yellow that could have helped him and his Honda make it to Victory Lane never came.

After being told that he had to come in for a final splash, Rahal briefly went off course in Turn 9 before entering the pits with four laps to go.

As if that wasn’t demoralizing enough for a driver that hasn’t won in the Verizon IndyCar Series since his inaugural start in 2008, Rahal was then hit with a penalty for speeding on pit road.

Instead of grabbing a long-awaited second IndyCar win, he came home 20th.

“I thought that finally, it was gonna happen,” Rahal told NBCSN afterwards. “I think all day, we were dominant. When we had to pass people, we could go right on by ’em – I was really, really good out of [Turn] 6.

“They told me the fuel number I needed to get – I was running a yellow map, which is like, way down on boost. But I could still pull away from the guys and I was getting the numbers that I needed to. [Team owner Bobby Rahal] stopped telling me a number, so I thought, ‘Well…maybe this is gonna happen. Maybe there is enough fuel.’

“Then the pit light came on, and I knew that was it.”

Rahal had moved into the Top 10 early on and after pitting on Lap 32, he stayed out under a caution at Lap 37 to advance to the Top 5. He was second by the time he stopped again at Lap 57, and when the cycle ended, he found himself breathing down the neck of then-race leader Mike Conway.

On Lap 64, Rahal went to the inside of Turn 7 and snatched the lead from Conway. But after pitting early in the cycle, it was likely that he needed a yellow to make the strategy work.

When that didn’t happen and Rahal pitted with four to go, Conway inherited the lead. But his hold on it lasted all of a few seconds, as second-place Scott Dixon passed him down the front-stretch and went on to win his second race of the year.

Conway then lost second position to Ryan Hunter-Reay in Turn 7. But he was still up for a podium in his final run of 2014 for Ed Carpenter Racing until his Chevrolet ran dry on the last lap.

“I was doing all I could to keep [Dixon and Hunter-Reay] behind,” Conway told NBCSN after crawling by the checkered flag in 14th position. “They were a little bit quicker, and at the same time, I’m trying to save a lot of fuel and not let them catch me, so it was tricky. I thought I was making a good job of it, I hit my numbers…I thought it would be good.

“But then on [the last lap], I used an overtake trying to stop Dixie from getting by me, which maybe hurt [the mileage] a little bit. I couldn’t do much more there, unfortunately. Then, I thought we had it on for a podium at least. And as we got through Turn 10, it just died. It picked up again, and then it completely shut off out of the last corner.”

Conway summed it up as “annoying” but thought ECR had the right idea with the strategy: “It nearly worked – just another hundred meters and we would’ve been alright.”

Bourdais hopes last year’s crash turns into Indy 500 Cinderella story on Sunday

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Sebastien Bourdais has relived his May 20, 2017 crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifying over and over in his mind, day after day, week after week and month after month.

He would think of the worst crash of his open-wheel racing career at least once — if not several times — a day, particularly when he’d experience a slight twinge of pain.

“I think about it every day,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk. “Even though I’m functionally 100 percent now, it’s still very rare that during the day that there’s not a little pinch or something that reminds me of what happened.”

But this past weekend while qualifying for this year’s 500, one year later, the French driver said he was finally able to work past the mental roadblock that just would not leave his mind.

The solution was simple: complete the task he wasn’t able to do so last year, namely, qualifying for the race – and qualifying well.

Bourdais will start fifth in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, in the middle of Row 2.

“(Last year’s crash is) still in my mind,” Bourdais said. “But I think the biggest hurdle, at least mentally, was qualifying last weekend, putting yourself back in the same set of circumstances, going back on the line there.

“It felt a little bit the same, chances of rain, some rain, delays, you get back in line, conditions change, everything gets harder because it gets hotter, but that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome. After that, it’s back to business.”

Bourdais has already won once in 2018 – the season-opening race in his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.

It helped jump start him to a strong overall run in the first five races of the season, including a fourth-place showing two weeks ago at the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indianapolis, coupled with entering the 500 third in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

Now, he wants to win the biggest race of his career. If he does so, he’ll feel as if he finally and completely has come full circle from last year’s devastating wreck that shattered his pelvis, going head-on into the Turn 2 wall at a reported 228 mph.

“Well, it’s the Holy Grail of IndyCar, it doesn’t really get any bigger than that,” Bourdais said of the 500. “It’s the biggest achievement that you can accomplish in IndyCar.

“I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else: we all want to win it pretty bad, but I’m sure after what happened after last year, it’d be a Cinderella story.”

But there’s a caveat to Bourdais writing that story: “There’s 32 other drivers that want to accomplish the same thing, and it’s a one day event. We’ll give it our best shot … you can only give your very best and see what happens on that given day.”

Bourdais has a lot going for him heading into Sunday. First off, he’ll start from the highest qualifying position he’s ever had in what will be the seventh Indy 500 of the 39-year-old’s racing career.

Second, his confidence and comfort level are higher than they’ve ever been coming into the annual classic at the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval.

Third, he’s forgiven himself – not IMS – for what happened last year. He has no ill feeling towards the racetrack, nor does he seek revenge. If he were to start thinking that way, it would serve no positive purpose.

“No. I’m not really that way,” he said when asked if he wants revenge over the racetrack. “The track didn’t beat me up, I beat myself.

“The bottom line is there were a couple of reasons why it happened, but I got more comfortable and more confident and confidence and comfort at some point just bite you at Indy.

“You just do your laps, you get into such a rhythm and the week had gone perfectly with an awesome car and there was not a doubt in my mind it was going to stick (going into Turn 2), and that’s when it happened – and I paid the price.”

So, Bourdais is simply going to go out and race, again, hoping to complete what he started last year before being so painfully derailed.

His best finish to date in the 500 has been seventh (2014). He just needs for his Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser – Sullivan Honda to finish six places higher on Sunday.

And if he does, his move to Dale Coyne Racing last year – he’s competed in 13 of 23 races with two wins, 3 podiums and one pole – would only serve to make what already has proven to be a great move into a potentially brilliant move.

Because, yes, Bourdais isn’t just thinking Indy 500 win, he’s also thinking of a potential championship this season.

“I sure hope so,” Bourdais said when asked if his team’s success will continue. “I like to say it’s (the success that the Coyne camp has had since he came there) a little bit of my baby, bringing in Craig (engineer Craig Hampson) and Olivier (race engineer Olivier Boisson) and reinforcing the existing crew.”

Bourdais is no stranger to winning championships. He won four straight combined titles in CART and the Champ Car World Series from 2004 through 2007 (he also won 28 races in that four-year span).

“Obviously, it’s one thing to get into a winning team and basically meet expectations,” Bourdais said. “It’s another thing to try and build something and change the status of the underdog and turn him into a contender week in and week out.

“We got a glimpse of that last year, and this year, we’ve been competitive every weekend so far, and that’s a great feeling. Once you’re able to be competitive on street course, road courses, short ovals and superspeedways, then you can start saying and thinking championship.”

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