IndyCar 2016 driver review: Graham Rahal

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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fifth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a roller coaster year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg. Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish
  • 2016: 5th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 5th, 4 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 8 Top-10s, 14 Laps Led, 12.8 Avg. Start, 8.9 Avg. Finish

For Graham Rahal, the year ended only one position worse in points than in 2015. The difference was, last year fourth was a disappointment after contending for the title down to the final race in Sonoma, while this year, Rahal often languished in the lower regions of the top-10 or outside it before finishing with a surge to vault into the top-five. It was an inconsistent campaign results-wise, but one, which also showed that Rahal’s ability and the collective efforts from his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team of a year ago were not a fluke.

The yo-yo dynamic of the year was such that although Rahal banked eight top-fives – his only top-10s of the year – he only strung them together in back-to-back races once all season, when he was a tough second at Barber following a duel with Simon Pagenaud and then rebounded from a qualifying penalty to finish fourth at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Otherwise, he followed a top-five finish with a result outside the top-10 in every instance. Pace deficiencies were rarely the reason for the poor result. Sometimes he got punted, sometimes he got caught out by yellow timing and sometimes, like at Watkins Glen, he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when battling Charlie Kimball for position.

The highlight, naturally, was his win at Texas. It was an incredible run in the closing laps to make the moves he did, then push past James Hinchcliffe on the inside for the win into Turns 3 and 4, and then win it by 0.008 of a second. That he did so with the news coming later that night his grandmother had passed made it all the more poignant; similar to how he won at Mid-Ohio last year on home soil, sharing the podium with the late Justin Wilson. He would have never known it at the time what it meant to win there.

A second-place at Sonoma was just desserts for the campaign – it rewarded the crew and Rahal’s pace for the year, which was evident with five Firestone Fast Six appearances. RLL ended ahead of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as the most consistent contenders for Honda, more so than Andretti Autosport, which often languished in the midpack.

Rahal delivered a year that wasn’t quite the encore of his career 2015, but it was an important one in that he proved he wasn’t just a one-hit wonder and has the consistent pace and performance to be considered a legitimate title contender on an annual basis. That he did so on the one-car team, down in terms of personnel, budget and data feedback compared to the four-car mights, spoke volumes of their collective ability to make even more happen.