AVONDALE, Ariz. – About 28 hours prior to the green flag of Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, Graham Rahal and the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda were lost at sea after a severe moment in Turn 1 on his first hot qualifying lap cost him any hope of a good speed.
“All day we’ve been really loose. I’ve been sideways more times today than I’ve been on an oval in years. Obviously we got a lot of work to do,” a perplexed Rahal said Friday afternoon, back in his land speed cruiser a day after flying with the Air Force Thunderbirds at nearby Luke Air Force Base, and pulling 9.4 G’s.
Then Friday night Rahal and crew found the setup, got the Mi-Jack/United Rentals-backed entry dialed in and found himself with a much better car than it was in the heat of the day a few hours earlier.
Still, after starting 19th with an average speed of 179 mph and change, and with passing at a premium and the Hondas at a noticeable disadvantage to the Chevrolets, seeing Rahal in fifth by the checkered flag was a minor surprise – albeit a welcome one.
Rahal hailed his crew for the efforts, because the key for him was staying on the lead lap early and then gaining big time on the pit stops.
Although Rahal started 19th, he’d done well to pass three cars in the opening two laps and get to 16th. His crew gained him a few spots on the first sequence and he was 13th.
Rahal got a bit lucky timing wise with the second sequence, as he hadn’t made his stop yet. But a Lap 120 yellow for Carlos Munoz and a number of others pitting ahead of him meant he was up to eighth. And again, his crew delivered – he gained two more spots to get to sixth.
Other than a moment late in the race when he passed Ed Carpenter, who’d lost momentum through Turns 3 and 4 when fighting Will Power, Rahal managed to avoid the drama and raced hard to get to a needed fifth place.
It snapped a brutal three-race run of results for him dating to Pocono last year, and Rahal was quick to praise his team in a post-race chat.
“The pit stops were amazing as always. I’ve said it from the start, I felt confident today because of those guys,” Rahal told NBC Sports post-race. “If I didn’t have this crew, and those stops, I wouldn’t have felt half as good about this race.”
The fascinating bit beyond the crew note was how much Rahal and the team recovered this weekend after the disaster in qualifying, which was a bit reminiscent of some of the team’s efforts last year (Iowa and Fontana were noteworthy efforts there).
Rahal was back to the usual one-car effort this weekend after teammate Spencer Pigot made his IndyCar debut at St. Petersburg, although Pigot was still on site for support this weekend.
Yet with the missed setup and with Rahal’s noted development aces Mike Talbott and Martin Pare absent this weekend, it took a recovery to get back to form.
“Honestly, this weekend highlighted the disadvantage of being a single-car team. I had no one else to have information and gain data,” Rahal admitted. “Honestly, I was on my own. Had we had another car, we would have recognized it from the start.
“But now here we are. We didn’t take a huge swing. Mike Talbott who is back home in Colorado and Martin Pare, who’s up in Toronto, they’re with us in spirit. All three put their heads together. But we needed this result.”
Rahal’s fifth place vaulted him from 16th after St. Petersburg up to seventh in the points, and 39 back of leader Simon Pagenaud.
It’s early days yet, but there’s no telling how important this result could be for Rahal the rest of the season. In that regard it’s almost a bit similar to NOLA last year, when Rahal and team provided the first glimpse at their big 2015 season ahead.
“We’d had three in a row of tough luck. This, we broke through a bit. These guys made this happen. We were at a big disadvantage. Fifth today is better than what we could have dreamed of.
“It’s all due to good pit stops.. When I was stuck in traffic, I was saving as much fuel as I possible could. And you saw how much I saved compared to the others, and it got us there.”