Graham Rahal looks to finish oval-race trilogy by continuing hot streak

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Graham Rahal isn’t wavering from the belief that he had prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Fontana a few weeks ago.

He believed the three-race stretch at the oval tracks – Fontana, the Milwaukee Mile and this weekend’s at Iowa Speedway – could make or break the season of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s single-car team.

He’s not wavering because nothing’s been broken.

Rahal won his first IndyCar race since 2008 at Fontana and followed it up at Milwaukee with his fifth podium of the year, a career best. Throw in two straight Will Power DNF’s and Rahal now sits tied for third in the driver standings with Helio Castroneves, 69 points behind leader Juan Pablo Montoya.

“I absolutely still think that the biggest thing for us as a team is to try to carry momentum through these races because it’s not only important to us for our season,” Rahal said in a press release. “These are areas where we struggled as a team the past couple of years.”

In his first three starts at Fontana, Rahal’s results were sixth (2012), a DNF and 19th. At Milwaukee, he had not finished better than ninth since earning two top-five finishes in 2009 and 2011. On Sunday, he led his first laps ever at the 1-mile track.

At Iowa, which hosts Saturday’s Iowa Corn 300 at 8 p.m. ET NBCSN, Rahal has yet to finish better than fifth (2013) in seven starts.

“Of all the oval races, I think Iowa has been our strength the last couple of years so I’m pretty excited to get there and see what we can do,” Rahal said of the 0.894-mile track.

“We found some things for our short track setup in Milwaukee that is really going to help us going forward. There is no doubt in my mind that this team will show improvement at Iowa.”

Through 12 of 16 races, Rahal’s No. 15 has been far and away the class of the Honda-powered teams. In addition to his Fontana win, Rahal has been the top-finishing Honda driver in six races, including the last three.

This in a year where Honda has been considered at a competitive disadvantage to Chevrolet, which has won nine of 12 races. In 2014, the two manufacturers each had six wins after race 12. In 2013, Honda had five.

“It’s going to be hard to catch (Juan Pablo) Montoya to win the championship, but I really don’t see why we can’t be right there, right behind them. That’s our goal,” Rahal said. “Everyone from Honda continues to work hard. They have kept their heads down and kept working hard and we are putting ourselves in a place where we can succeed and we will.”

So far Rahal’s confidence hasn’t been misplaced this year, his best since breaking into IndyCar in 2007 at 18.

“I’m proud of the effort they (Honda) have put in,” Rahal continued. “It was apparent from the start that we were a little bit behind and the guys have just kept working hard and we have found ourselves right in the thick of this thing in the championship. We’re going to keep pushing hard to get Honda even further up if we can.

“I’m not worried about the title or standings as much as I am thinking about how we can do the best we can and put ourselves in a great position to compete.”

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”