Rahal seeks Detroit podium three-peat to atone for Indy disappointment

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Pre-race, even starting 26th, Graham Rahal and the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Rahal Letterman Lanigan with Theodore Racing Honda crew felt confident they were well-poised for success in last Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The car was good, the driver was good, the pit stops were good, all things you’d expect. But luck was not on their side as they ended an unrepresentative 14th despite the promise of top-five potential. In some respects, it was similar to races this year at St. Petersburg and Long Beach where Rahal ended worse than his drive would have illustrated.

Rahal noted pre-race that he was incredibly happy with his car, and had gained nine spots up to P17 by the time of his first pit stop on Lap 30. He’d made it back from 22nd to 17th again on the second stint, then gained two more spots on the second sequence. In that sequence, Rahal was running close to defending Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, then had to swerve to avoid Montoya once he crashed on Lap 64.

Once in 15th, matching his car number, Rahal were finally able to make even more strides in the third stint to get as his as 11th.

But that’s when it all went a bit off script. After his pit stop on Lap 96, under a yellow for Sage Karam’s accident, Rahal lost his left rear winglet and 100 pounds of downforce. On Lap 115 when Mikhail Aleshin spun out of the race, Rahal had to take evasive action again as the Russian driver crashed exiting Turn 1 into Turn 2. He sustained contact from Aleshin’s teammate and his own past teammate, Oriol Servia, to the right rear.

To top it off, he had to make an extra stop for a splash of fuel in a closed pit on Lap 152, and that knocked him back from what had been fourth place entering a yellow on Lap 150 to 18th by the restart on Lap 158.

Rahal was among the runners who pitted on Lap 164 but couldn’t quite stretch his mileage to the end, and needed a final splash on Lap 190, after entering in P11. He ended 14th.

“It just wasn’t our day. We just never had the pace all day which is kind of weird,” Rahal said in the team’s post-race release. “We broke a left rear winglet in the pits. Someone was pushing the car and then we had to stop because Pippa (in the next pit) was coming in. The winglet was broken in the process which really hurt us because we lost a lot of downforce there but it also then left a blunt end on the car so it had a lot of drag and the car was really slow on the straights. Then we fought our way back up to the front and that final yellow killed us because we needed to pit and they didn’t open the pits. I don’t know why, but they waited an extra lap over what they normally do so we had to pit for a splash of fuel to make it until we could come in for a full stop. We kept our heads down and kept pushing.

“Our goal was to put the Steak ‘n Shake car in Victory Lane and we didn’t do it.  We’re going to have to wait another year to think about this. We missed a golden opportunity here. We had a great race car but there were just too many little errors today, not necessarily any one thing.  Hell, I’m just happy we finished.  I think three or four guys crashed in front of me. Every time, it was everything I could do to get the car slowed down without hitting them.  We couldn’t get the fuel mileage to make it to the end so we just bailed on that strategy and tried to run hard but it was too little, too late. I hate gas mileage races and feel pretty bad for some guys.”

Arguably the bigger blow to Rahal came in the points, owing to the double points for the race itself plus the points issued for qualifying. With 26th on the grid and 14th in the race, Rahal netted only 40 points total – which is down 84 to race winner Alexander Rossi, who scored 124. He fell from fifth, 109 points behind points leader Simon Pagenaud to 12th, 119 behind Pagenaud this weekend – even though he finished five spots ahead of Pagenaud in 19th.

For this weekend in Detroit, Rahal’s usual red and black No. 15 Honda will switch to an AERO Paint-created blue chrome and silver wrap, featuring United Rentals as the primary sponsor.

Rahal has a streak on the line this weekend. He’s the only driver in the field who has been on the podium in Detroit each of the last two years. He came second to Will Power in race one in 2014, his only podium of a trying season, then came third behind Sebastien Bourdais and Takuma Sato in race two last year, one of six podiums.

“I’m looking forward to getting back on a street course,” Rahal said in the team’s pre-race advance. “I think we should be good. I know Long Beach was frustrating but I get the sense the United Rentals car should be fast and competitive. I am looking forward to getting to Detroit and getting running as soon as possible. Last year was a tough, wet, weekend. We were too conservative in the first race and ultimately got collected in others messes. We then went on Sunday and had a great race to follow it all up with podium. We are looking for a good solid weekend all around again this year.”