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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.

Lewis Hamilton receives Daytona 500 invitation from Bubba Wallace

Lewis Hamilton Bubba Wallace
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Lewis Hamilton is a fan of the new NASCAR Cup Series team formed by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan to field a car for Bubba Wallace.

Will the six-time Formula One champion also be a fan in person at a NASCAR race in the near future?

Wallace is hoping so.

After Hamilton tweeted his support Tuesday morning about the news of a Hamlin-Jordan-Wallace team making its debut with the 2021 season, Wallace responded with a sly invitation to the Daytona 500.

Much would need to be worked out, starting with how much garage and grandstand access would be afforded for a 2021 season opener that likely would occur during a still ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But it would seem fitting given that Hamilton and Wallace have been two of the world’s most outspoken Black athletes about the quest for diversity and racial justice. Hamilton recently reaffirmed his commitment to activism after his donning a Breonna Taylor shirt sparked an FIA inquiry.

The idea of Hamilton attending the season opener already had legs, too. The Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 driver has expressed a desire to race the Daytona 500 after he has retired from Formula One.

He was a spectator (with racing legend Mario Andretti) at four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s final Cup race as a full-time in the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2011, Hamilton swapped cars with three-time champion Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen International.

Having rubbed shoulders with other racing greats so often, it only would be fitting if Hamilton — who is one victory from tying Michael Schumacher’s career record and also could tie the F1 record with a seventh championship this season — spent some time with the greatest basketball player of all time.

Jeff Gordon was flanked by Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton before the 2015 Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).