IndyCar 2017 driver review: Graham Rahal

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. Graham Rahal had another strong campaign for the single-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing squad, and despite a lower finishing position in the standings it was quite possibly the most well-rounded of this excellent three-year run.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2016: 5th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 5th, 4 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 8 Top-10, 14 Laps Led, 12.8 Avg. Start, 8.9 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 6th Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 3 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 110 Laps Led, 10.1 Avg. Start, 8.4 Avg. Finish

The third straight consistent, top-six in points performance from the single-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team and driver Graham Rahal proved they are a part of IndyCar’s elite, if that wasn’t already apparent. Toss out the first four races and Rahal would have easily been a proper 2017 title contender, in a year that was an increase both in consistency and results over 2016 – even if weirdly, he ended one spot lower in points thanks to Scott Dixon getting back ahead of him.

Problem was that first four-race stretch was miserable, and out of the gate Rahal was 17th in points, with a 100-point deficit to then-points leader Simon Pagenaud after Phoenix, when he got taken out in the Turn 1 mess. He ended the season only 107 back of Pagenaud and 120 back of champion Josef Newgarden, so it’s easy to note that the rest of the way Rahal was the measure of the Penskes and probably the best Honda on average – even ahead of Dixon.

After a strong INDYCAR Grand Prix race recovery, his luck didn’t change much either in the Indianapolis 500 with a puncture halting a potential win run there, and dropping him to 12th. A tour de force weekend at Detroit followed a week later with a famous weekend sweep – and the fact that it was a Honda driver doing so at a Chevrolet-sponsored weekend with the GM corporate headquarters in the background was not lost on anyone! That vaulted him up to sixth in points at the end of the weekend, only 52 back of new leader Dixon.

Finishes between third and ninth in each of the next six races were solid but unsatisfactory. Rahal felt particularly aggrieved to lose a likely podium, if not possible win, in Toronto after an outstanding qualifying lap that netted him second on the grid – and a lap Rahal called the best of his career – thanks to an ill-timed caution. Lapped traffic drew his ire on several occasions and Rahal, always an insightful quote, wasn’t afraid to speak out about it, notably at Iowa on the short oval and then again at his home race in Mid-Ohio when he felt Esteban Gutierrez interfered with the race’s outcome after the final restart.

An unlucky ninth in Pocono despite a great dice for the lead with Tony Kanaan there and 12th a week later in Gateway put pause to his outside championship hopes, but finishes of fifth and sixth in the final two road course races solidified him as the best finisher outside the Penske and Ganassi teams this season, and ahead of all four Andretti Autosport cars.

Whereas 2015 saw Rahal surprise to contend for the title, and 2016 saw Rahal finish strong despite a yo-yo in terms of results, this may have been his best all-around season of this excellent three-year run that saw RLL consistently the best Honda team in the aero kit period, thanks in large part to its damper work. The in-season turnaround was remarkable; notably in qualifying as the first six races Rahal’s average grid spot was 15.8 and in the last 11 it was 6.9. Given that Rahal and the team were excellent through and through in 2017, it was a shame they ended lower in the standings than they deserved.

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
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On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)