IndyCar: What time is it? It’s Graham Rahal’s time for a championship

Photos: IndyCar

If you see Graham Rahal this weekend at the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, ask him what time it is.

But don’t expect him to answer something like 10 a.m., Noon or 6 p.m.

Instead, he’ll talk about his chances to win the 2018 IndyCar championship.

“I feel like it is our time,” Rahal says with a strong air of confidence that this truly will be his year to win his first IndyCar championship.

The son of three-time CART champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal has good reason to be as confident as he is.

In the last three seasons, the younger Rahal has finished fourth (a career best), fifth and sixth in the IndyCar ranks. He’s also earned five of his six career wins in the last three seasons, including two triumphs in 2017.

Also in those last three seasons, he’s earned 13 podium finishes and one pole.

After all that, you know, yes, maybe it is Rahal’s time in 2018.

“I feel like it is,” Rahal reiterated. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I’m still 29, I’m just kind of entering the prime of my career, I’ve gone through my ups and downs, been with different teams and we’ve all settled in here.

“I just feel like this team is a great place to be and I think we’re at a point where together, we know each other so well and work together so well. We’ve had no changes; we don’t change things, we just don’t. We keep the status quo, just keep going with the great people around us, so, yeah, I feel like it is our time.”

Even at such a young age, Rahal is an experienced veteran. He’s entering his 11th season in IndyCar and 12th overall in U.S. open-wheel racing (competed in Champ Car in 2007), for a grand total of 11 years and 175 race starts.

As he’s gone through all those years, Rahal has watched as other young drivers have gone on to great success in IndyCar.

In Rahal’s first full-time season in IndyCar in 2008, Scott Dixon won the first of his three championships at 28 years old. And then last season, Josef Newgarden became one of the youngest drivers to ever win an IndyCar championship at the age of 27.

And let’s not forget the Indianapolis 500. Alexander Rossi won the 100th anniversary of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing at the age of 24 in 2016, and as an IndyCar rookie.

Rahal has envisioned himself in their place too many times to count.

But heading into the 2018 campaign, with a team that is perhaps the strongest it has ever been at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Graham said there’s a championship feeling at the team’s headquarters.

“I think we’re going to have a great year,” Rahal said. “I’m excited for what I’ve seen so far. We’ve been doing a lot of testing and overall, there’s been no complaints. Lots of positives for us.”

And with the bold, sexy design of the new Dallara body, Rahal says there’ll be lots of positives for the sanctioning body and its fans, making this perhaps the most optimistic season in the last 20 or more years.

“The new car, I think is going to re-energize a lot of fans,” Rahal said. “I think people are going to really enjoy what they see, the performance it has.

“It’s different, different in the way it performs, acceleration and everything else. I think people are really going to like that. Anybody who fell in love with the sport during, say, my dad’s era, are certainly going to love what they see.

“I think it’s good. It’s been fun. It’s a different feel, there’s no doubt about that. But just the way it brakes, slows down, it’s very different than before. You have to drive it differently, think about it differently, but what’s fun about it is the challenge that it provides.

“A lot of race cars year after year after year are very similar. So when you get a big change like this, it makes it exciting as a driver to figure it out. In a lot of ways, it levels the playing field as well. So I think it should be really cool.”

Takuma Sato, left, and Graham Rahal are back to being teammates at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this season.

Rahal is also be reunited with last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Takuma Sato, who rejoins RLL after just one season with Andretti Autosport.

“I think he helps a lot,” Rahal said of Sato. “He brings a lot to the team. The key for our program is to keep the intensity low and the smiles frequent.

“We’ve been able to keep a lot of guys and have had success because everybody enjoys themselves on this team. When you bring in a guy like Takuma or any other driver, you always have to be very cautious of that, don’t mess up our mojo.

“But the great thing about Takuma is he doesn’t, he’s a great guy, a happy guy and is a great influence on our program, our people and our team. We’re very, very excited to have him as part of that and I think we’re fortunate to have him and his influence to be part of that.

“I’ve had teammates with other guys that don’t have that influence. For some guys, the sky’s always falling and it’s not fun to work with those guys. In this case, Takuma is a guy that slots right in, a lot of experience, a very technical guy and obviously never lacks speed. We all know that.”

While he’s keen about his own championship hopes, Rahal knows it won’t be a cakewalk by any means. A few mistakes here, a few poor finishes there, and his title plans could quickly go awry.

Who does he consider his toughest competitors?

“I think there’s no doubt that Penske is going to be tough,” Rahal said. “They always are. They’re still the team to beat.

“Scott Dixon, he’s an animal. To me, he’s the best driver in the series, so you have to watch out for him and Ganassi, Scott’s going to be right there. Also, (Ryan) Hunter-Reay will have a pretty good year, and I think (Alex) Rossi will be much improved again.

“But I’d like to believe that everybody else has a little bit of fear about us, because I do like to believe that our team is on the verge of doing great things. We’ve had a good couple of years, a great couple of years, but now with the same aero kits and it all coming down to team, driver and Honda, there’s a lot to believe in and a lot of reasons to think our team can be pretty tough.”

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Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”