Graham Rahal looks to repeat winning performance at Mid-Ohio

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Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. But for Verizon IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal, his heart will always be in Mid-Ohio.

That’s both the middle of the Buckeye State, where he grew up in the shadow of the capital city of Columbus, as well as – more importantly – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, 50 miles north in Lexington, Ohio.

Mid-Ohio was where Rahal watched his father, Bobby, race (best career showing there were a pair of third-place finishes), qualify, practice and test.

Mid-Ohio was where the younger Rahal learned a great deal of not only how to drive a race car, but more importantly, how to be a race car drive both inside and outside the cockpit.

If Rahal had a dollar for every time he dreamed about or fantasized about winning an IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio, he could probably own the track now.

Next to winning the Indianapolis 500, winning an IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio was right at the top of the younger Rahal’s bucket list – which he finally achieved in emotional fashion last year.

(Photo courtesy Chris Jones/IndyCar)
Graham Rahal celebrates in the winner’s circle at Mid-Ohio last year. (Photo courtesy Chris Jones/IndyCar)

Now, Rahal returns to Mid-Ohio to try and make it to the winner’s circle two years in a row in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (2 p.m. ET on CNBC/re-aired at 5:30 p.m. ET the same day on NBCSN).

“Mid-Ohio is home to me,” the younger Rahal said in a media release. “I grew up at the track and spent so many days there as a kid.

“Watching races there, being a part of it, seeing and loving what it’s all about is a big part of who I am. The way it all came together last year, every aspect of it made it perfect for me. Having the Buckeye helmet and gear, having my entire family there – which never happens, ever, since everyone is spread out – and having the crowd support, to have that sort of experience makes it impossible to tell anyone how much it means to me.

“The sense of accomplishment for me is so great. Everyone knows this but I love Ohio. I’m very proud to be from Ohio and that event means so much to me. To win it is a career accomplishment that I will never forgot or take for granted. It means just as much to me now as it did then. To me it’s one of the highlights of my lifetime, and definitely the most meaningful win of my career. I sure hope it happens again.”

Prior to last year’s win, Rahal’s best IndyCar finish at his home track was fifth in 2014.

(He previously won one other time at Mid-Ohio: at 16 years old became the youngest driver to ever win the SCCA National Formula Atlantic Championship Runoffs in 2005.)

Rahal’s only other IndyCar top-10 at his home track was eighth in 2009, when he drove for Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing (he’s now in his fourth season with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).

And even though he’d leave the 2.258-mile, 13-turn natural terrain road course time after time without the checkered flag, Rahal was determined to one day do it – and he did just that on August 2, 2015.

Rahal drove his Steak ‘n Shake/Maxim sponsored Honda to the winner’s circle, leading one-fourth (23 laps) of the 90-lap event, taking the lead for the first and only time of the day on Lap 68 and holding on the rest of the way.

“We had to rally last year,” Rahal recalled. “We started 13th which wasn’t great. We should have qualified better than that as our pace was certainly better than that.

“We ended up getting up to the top three on pure pace then I was held up in traffic. I said over the radio that I wanted to pit. I like to think about strategy a lot as a driver, which is the way my dad was. I knew that with the strategy we were running, we were in the window to pit, I knew I was getting held up so I made the call and told them I was coming in.

“It happened to go yellow right as we came in, which was absolutely perfect. It worked out great for us. … There was so much pride involved in that day. It’s hard for me to explain the feelings that I had to people. It was a great moment in my life and I just hope it carries over and we see a lot of support this year.”

Sunday will be Rahal’s ninth IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio, but there will be a definite change in the aura from last year. He came into and left the track ranked No. 2 in the series standings, earning his second win of the season.

That’s not the case this year.

Rahal and his team have had strong showings for the most part, but have struggled in their quest for the winner’s circle (none), and even podium finishes (just two in the first 11 races).

Firestone 600 - Practice

Even worse, they’re mid-pack in the series standings (11th), 140 points behind points leader Simon Pagenaud. On the flip side, Rahal is only eight points out of seventh place (occupied by Alexander Rossi), and just 52 points behind fifth-ranked Josef Newgarden (344).

Overall, Rahal has five top-five finishes and a per-race finishing average of a respectable 9.4. That includes finishes on permanent road courses of second and third at Barber and Road America, as well as street course runs of fourth at Indianapolis (Grand Prix) and Belle Isle Race 1.

But he also has six finishes between 11th and 16th (twice), including disappointing showings in the season’s last two races – at Iowa (16th) and Toronto (13th). He also struggled in street courses at St. Petersburg (16th), Long Beach (15th) and Belle Isle Race 2 (11th).

That’s why a little home cooking back in Mid-Ohio may be just what Rahal needs to get back on track and make a late season surge upward in the rankings.

“We have certainly had an up and down season, and are in need of a good result this weekend in a big way,” Rahal said. “It’s exciting to go back as the defending champion, but we want to do that again year in and year out. We just have to focus on the task at hand, and hopefully we can pull it off.”

Rahal may have an ace up his sleeve. Of 20 drivers that took part in an open test at Mid-Ohio on July 21, Rahal was the fastest Honda-powered driver.

“The test was good,” Rahal said. “We were focused on getting to the mileage limit on our Honda engine, which we successfully did.

“Now we turn our attention to finding little bits of speed we will need to be quick come this weekend. I hope we can get the balance a bit better, but it didn’t feel far off on the test day.

“I expect that we should be very competitive and our performance from the other road courses should carry over to Mid-Ohio. The tricky part is that everyone is competitive nowadays. There are no longer any bad teams or non-contenders. So I fully expect it to be a patented tight IndyCar race weekend and I hope the Steak ‘n Shake team can come out on top again!”

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2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona: Schedule, TV info, start times, entry lists, notable drivers, more

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The new year brings the start of a new era for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, which will open the 2023 schedule with the 61st running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

A new premier class for prototypes is the overriding story entering the 24-hour endurance race that unofficially kicks off the major-league racing season.

The new Le Mans Daytona hybrid (LMDh) cars of the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) top category will re-establish a bridge to the 24 Hours of Le Mans while bringing a new layer of engine electrification to IMSA.

With at least a few of the cars on the grid at Daytona also slated to race at Le Mans in June, it’s possible for the first time in decades (since the “Ford vs. Ferrari” battles) to have the same car win the overall title at Daytona and Le Mans.

The GTP category will feature four manufacturers, two of which are new to IMSA’s premier division. Porsche Motorsport (with Team Penske) and BMW (with Rahal Letterman Lanigan) will be fielding LMDh prototypes, joining (now-defunct) DPi category holdovers Acura (Meyer Shank Racing, Wayne Taylor Racing) and Cadillac (Chip Ganassi Racing, Action Express Racing).

Here’s what else you need to know ahead of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener Jan. 29-30 at Daytona International Speedway:


NOTABLE DRIVER ADDITIONS 

The Rolex 24 will feature 10 active drivers from the NTT IndyCar Series, including the IMSA debuts of Team Penske drivers Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, who will be teamed in an LMP2 entry (teammate Will Power unfortunately had to withdraw from this debut).

Colton Herta will move into the GTP category with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud return with Meyer Shank Racing to defend their overall 2022 Rolex 24 victory. Scott Dixon also returns in the premier category with Chip Ganassi Racing for his 20th Rolex 24 start and third consecutive in the No. 01 Cadillac.

Other IndyCar drivers in the field: Romain Grosjean will make his debut in GTD Pro with Iron Lynx Racing (as a precursor to driving a GTP Lamborghini next year); Devlin DeFrancesco (Rick Ware Racing) and Rinus VeeKay (TDS Racing) are in LMP2; and Kyle Kirkwood will return in GTD with Vasser Sullivan.

Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric also will return, teaming with DeFrancesco in an LMP2 entry for Rick Ware Racing.


CAR COUNT

The Rolex 24 field was capped at 61 cars, matching last year’s field (which was the largest since 2014). The field was capped because of the space limitations for the LMDh cars of GTP in the pits and garages.

Click here for the official 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona entry list.


STARTING LINEUP

Tom Blomqvist captured the first pole position of the GTP era, qualifying defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing in first with the No. 60 ARX-06 Acura that he shares with Colin Braun, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

The No. 7 Porsche 963 of Porsche Penske Motorsports will start second.

Click here for the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona starting lineup


RACE BROADCAST

The 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona will be streamed across the NBC Sports AppNBCSports.com and Peacock, which will have coverage of the event from flag to flag.

Broadcast coverage of the race coverage will begin Saturday, Jan. 28 at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC and move to USA Network from 2:30-8 p.m. and then will be exclusively on Peacock and IMSA.TV from 8-10 p.m. Coverage will return to USA Network from 10 p.m. to midnight and then move to Peacock/IMSA.TV until 6 a.m.

From 6 a.m. until noon on Sunday, Jan. 29, Rolex 24 coverage will be available on USA Network. The conclusion of the Rolex 24 will run from noon through 2 p.m. on NBC.

HOW TO WATCH IMSA ON NBC SPORTS: Broadcast schedule for 2023

Other events that will be streamed on Peacock from Daytona during January (all times ET):

Jan. 21: IMSA VP Racing Sports Car Challenge, 2:05 p.m.

Jan. 22: IMSA VP Racing Sports Car Challenge, 12:20 p.m.

Jan. 22: IMSA Rolex 24 qualifying, 1:25 p.m.

Jan. 27: BMW Endurance Michelin Pilot Challenge, 1:45 p.m.


ROLEX 24 COVERAGE FROM NBC SPORTS

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi take their storied rivalry to a new level at Daytona

Pfaff Motorsports returns to Rolex 24 in premier parking spot punching above its weight

Cadillac, Acura battle for top of the speed charts

Herta, Rahal team up with BMW in pursuit of overall win at Rolex 24

Wayne Taylor Racing takes a step up to the next level with Andretti Autosport

Austin Cindric seeks to join legendary club of Rolex 24-Daytona 500 winners

Helio Castroneves recalls “Days of Thunder” moment in 2022 Rolex 24 victory

The “Bus Bros” tackle the “Bus Stop” for Rolex 24 at Daytona debuts

Romain Grosjean adds Rolex 24 at Daytona to his crown jewel career

Tom Blomqvist beats the clock to win Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position

GTP cars make debut in “Gymkhana”-level traffic

Five things to watch in the new GTP class as a golden era of sports cars returns

Cadillac unveils paint schemes for LMDh cars

Austin Cindric, Devlin DeFrancesco, Pietro Fittipaldi teaming up in LMP2

IndyCar drivers in the 61st Rolex 24


ROLEX 24 DAILY SCHEDULE, START TIMES

Here’s a rundown of everything happening at Daytona International Speedway over the last two weeks in January, starting with the Roar test session. Rolex 24 start times and full schedule:

Wednesday, Jan. 18

7 a.m.: GTP garages open

4 p.m.: Non-GTP garages open

4 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship haulers load-in (park only)

6:30 p.m.: Non-GTP garages close

9:30 p.m.: GTP garages close

Thursday, Jan. 19

7 a.m.: Garages, IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship haulers open

8:30 a.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship safety inspection

10 a.m.: Rolex 24 Media Day

2 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge driver and team manager briefing

3 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driver and team manager briefing

5:15 p.m.: Track walk

7:30 p.m.: Non-GTP garages close

9:30 p.m.: GTP garages close

Friday, Jan. 20

7 a.m.: Garages open

8:45-9:15 a.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge practice

9:30-10:45 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

1:45-2:15 p.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge practice

2:30-4 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

4:15-6 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice (GTD/LMP3/LMP2 4:15-5:45; 4:30-6: GTD Pro, GTP)

8 p.m.: Non-GTP garages close

9:30 p.m.: GTP garages close

Saturday, Jan. 21

7 a.m.: Garages open

8:40-9:15 a.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge qualifying

9:30-11 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

11:15 a.m.-12:45 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

2:05-2:50 p.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge, Race 1 (streaming on Peacock)

3:10 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

4:30-5:30 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

6:30-8:30 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

10 p.m.: Garages close

Sunday, Jan. 22

7 a.m.: Garages open

10:15-11:15 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

12:20-1:05 p.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge, Race 2 (streaming on Peacock)

1:25-3 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Rolex 24 qualifying (streaming on Peacock)

8:30 p.m.: Garages close

Wednesday, Jan. 25

6 a.m.: Garages open

7:30-10 a.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship safety inspection, non-GTP

8 a.m.: Mazda MX-5 load-in

10-11:30 a.m.: Track walk

10 a.m.-noon: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship car photos

11:30 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge team manager briefing

Noon: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship team manager briefing

12:30 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship new driver briefing

Noon-2 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship safety and technical inspection, non-GTP

1:45-2:30 p.m.: Mazda MX-5 practice

2:45-3:45 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

2:30-7:30 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship safety inspection, GTP only

4-5:30 p.m.: Track walk

6:45 p.m.: Garages close

Thursday, Jan. 26

7 a.m.: Garages open

9-9:30 a.m.: Mazda MX-5 practice

9:45-10:45 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

11:05 a.m.-12:35 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

12:55-1:10 p.m.: Mazda MX-5 qualifying

2:25-3 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge qualifying

3:20-5:05 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice (3:20-5:05: GTD, LMP3, LMP2; 3:35-5:05: GTD Pro, GTP)

5:30-6:15 p.m.: Mazda MX-5, Race 1

7:15-9 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

10:15 p.m.: Garages close

Friday, Jan. 27

7 a.m.: Garages open

9:25-9:55 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

10:15-11 a.m.: Mazda MX-5, Race 2

10:30 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge driver and team manager briefing

11:20 a.m.-12:20 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

1:45-5:45 p.m.: BMW M Endurance Challenge at Daytona (Michelin Pilot Challenge; streaming on Peacock)

8:45 p.m.: Garages close

Saturday, Jan. 28

6:30 a.m.: Garages open

9:45 a.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driver and team manager briefing

12:30-12:40 p.m.: Rolex 24 engine warmup

1:30-1:40 p.m.: Rolex 24 formation laps

1:40 p.m.: The 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona (starting on NBC; streaming flag to flag on Peacock)

Sunday, Jan. 29

1:40 p.m.: Finish of the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona

7:30 p.m.: Garages close