Graham Rahal hopes lightning strikes again for him in Angie’s List Grand Prix

(Getty Images)

If there was a turning point to Graham Rahal’s season in 2015, it likely was in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

After finishing second the race before at Birmingham, Rahal scored his second consecutive runner-up of the season in the Indy road course event.

That would propel him to a streak of four top-fives in five races, eventually two wins – a single-season career high with triumphs at Fontana and Mid-Ohio – and ultimately the best overall season finish in his IndyCar career: fourth place.

The driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda came into last year’s ALGPI ranked eighth in the standings; he enters this weekend’s race sixth in the rankings.

“The start to last season and this season are seemingly identical,” Rahal said. “I would have loved better results this year, and frankly feel the team deserves them.

“But due to my mistakes in Long Beach and bad luck in St. Pete, we have found ourselves in a similar position. I think this weekend will be key for a good kickoff to our month of May.”

Rahal hopes luck is on his side in Saturday’s race as it was in last year’s race. He deftly avoided an incident on the first turn of the opening lap, gathered things back up and roared to his runner-up finish.

“The race last year was interesting,” he said. “We struggled in qualifying, but due to the first corner mess, I was able to get into sixth place on the start.

“After that it was work as usual and trying to get by everyone with strategy and some passes. Luckily we were able to do both and it worked out great.”

With three of the first four races of 2016 thus far having been contested on either a street course (St. Petersburg, Long Beach) or road course (Birmingham), Rahal has been on somewhat of a roller coaster ride.

While he’s finished all four races and all but one lap this season, it’s been up and down, up and down.

He finished 15th at St. Petersburg, leaving him 16th in the Verizon IndyCar Series season standings after the first race.

From there, he went to Phoenix – the only oval thus far this season – and finished fifth. In doing so, he jumped to seventh in the season standings.

Then it was backslide time again, finishing 15th at Long Beach, and dropping back to ninth in the IndyCar standings.

In the most recent IndyCar race at Birmingham two weeks ago, Rahal did almost everything right and came home in second place – his second consecutive runner-up finish at Barber Motorsports Park and his best showing since his win at Mid-Ohio last year.

That allowed Rahal to jump back up again in the standings to sixth.

“We have been very solid and I think we are only scratching the surface,” Rahal said. “We will continue to work hard and see what we can gain.

“(The road course at Indy) is similar to Barber (Birmingham), which is why I expect to be good. The main difference is there are no elevation changes and a little bit faster speeds.

“To run up front and be very competitive, that’s what I expect everywhere now. I love being here and love racing in Indy. I can’t wait.”

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The road to the 2023 Daytona 500 is not paved for Travis Pastrana, he’ll attempt the DIRTcar Nationals

Pastrana DIRTcar Nationals
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

Travis Pastrana will attempt to make his first NASCAR Cup series race on February 19 with the grandaddy of them all, the Daytona 500, but his road to get there will not be paved and his car will have only two fenders as he tackles Florida Speedweeks and the DIRTcar Nationals.

In mid-January, it was announced Pastrana will attempt to qualify a third car from 23XI Racing that fields fulltime entries for Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick. Sponsorship will come from Black Rifle Coffee, who approached him during the offseason to ask what kind of “really cool stuff” he would like to do. Pastrana replied, “the Daytona 500” with a characteristic laugh in his voice.

“It’s good,” Pastrana said in a press release. “We’re going to go down, we’re going to go hangout with [NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion] Matt Crafton, one of [Black Rifle’s] drivers, we’ll go to Modified races and watch all the Late Models. We’ll watch the racing, and we’ll bring [United States military] veterans down and hangout with [Steve] Arpin.”

But there is a saying among dirt track fans that goes, ‘asphalt is for getting to the track; dirt is for racing’ – and Pastrana is taking that to heart.

After racing on the snow in Nitro Rallycross February 4-5 in Calgary, Alberta, the original plan was to head to Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida to watch the modified and late model races. Until Crafton called him out for not racing.

Pastrana relayed the conversation: “I told Crafton [I was coming to watch] and he goes, ‘Ah, too much of a sissy to drive?’ I called Arpin, and said, ‘So, Longhorn, I heard you guys have vehicles that can kick the crap out of Crafton’s vehicle.’ [Arpin] said, ‘Yeah, if you don’t suck, you can beat him.’ I said, ‘Alright, I’m in.’”

The DIRTcar Nationals run from February 6-18. The first week features six UMP Modified Mains each night they run, on Monday (Feb. 6), Friday (Feb. 10), and then the prestigious Gator Championship race on Saturday (Feb. 11). Pastrana hopes to run every night in one of Arpin’s cars, also with sponsorship from Black Riffle Coffee.

And this is not just for bragging rights; there is money on the line. Pastrana and Crafton have a $1 bet on who has the best finish.

While Pastrana is accustomed pitching his car sideways on a combination of left and right turns in a rally car – he won the Nitro Rallycross race at ERX Motorsports Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota last October and became the first two-time winner in the 2022/23 season at Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix, Arizona in November – the DIRTcar Nationals will be an entirely different proposition.

It took a day for Pastrana to get comfortable in the modified. And it took a little coaching from Arpin, who has experience in both dirt modifieds and rally cars to make him fast.

“[Arpin] showed up the second day after hearing how bad the first day was,” Pastrana said, which is confirmed in the Instagram post embedded above. “But he just told me, until you commit, it’s not going to work. Once I committed, it started making a lot of sense. But coming in, if you’re lifting off the gas while trying to turn, it just doesn’t turn and all your natural instincts say, ‘Don’t get on the gas.’ So, yeah, I feel like it should suit my driving style because I’m more of an aggressive sideways type of driver, but it was very difficult. Turning and sliding, I’m fine. Getting it there is not the easiest.”

Pastrana has one previous start in a dirt late model that came in the 2010 Prelude to the Dream. He finished 23rd in the 27-car field and was three laps off the pace. He wasn’t the only driver having difficulty getting a feel for the car that night; Jeff Gordon finished on the same lap, only one position ahead of him.

Travis Pastrana will race one of Steve Arpin’s dirt modifieds during Florida Speedweeks as he prepares for the 2023 Daytona 500. – Jacy Norgaard, World Racing Group

The price of the weekend could well exceed the dollar he may lose to Crafton.

“It’s going to be an expensive weekend,” Pastrana said. “Not everything is covered. If I crash anything, it is going to be all on me. This is one of those things where I want to come down and have fun. I want to hang out with the crowd, I want to sign autographs and give high fives. Especially for the Modified crew, that’s the grassroots racing that I love and some of my friends are involved with. We’ll be camping down there with Arpin and all the Longhorn guys, just hanging out. I feel like that’s a great opportunity for us to bring a lot of [US] veterans and bring people that are into racing and aren’t into racing, friends and family, and just have an awesome time.”

And it’s not out of the question that Pastrana could add another top-10 to his record book in the DIRTcar Nationals. After the rocky first day, Pastrana gained speed. Enough so that Arpin’s confidence was raised.

“We’re pretty confident Crafton is going to have to run hard to keep his dollar,” Arpin said.