IndyCar: Graham Rahal goes from last to fast in St. Petersburg runner-up finish

Photos: IndyCar

It may not work at many other places, but to win or do well at St. Petersburg, the best place of late to start seems to not be on or near the pole, but rather the polar opposite: last place.

It worked for Sebastien Bourdais last year, when he started the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from the back of the pack, worked his way through the field and wound up winning.

Starting from last almost worked once again in Sunday’s race. Graham Rahal had a tough qualifying session Saturday and was the last driver on the 24-driver grid when the green flag fell Sunday.

But just like Bourdais did last year, Rahal didn’t panic. In fact, you could make a strong case that he took a page right out of Bourdais’ playbook from last year’s race.

Rahal methodically worked his way up through the pack over the course of the race’s 110 laps, stayed out of trouble and brought his No. 15 United Rentals Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to a podium finish to start the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Bourdais won again Sunday (started from 14th this time, making it two wins in a row in the season opener). Bourdais and Rahal finished 1-2 after race leaders Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi tangled exiting Turn 1 with two laps to go.

Wickens would be knocked out of the race and finished 18th, while Rossi would bounce back from the incident with Wickens to finish third.

“I was inside of Bourdais, too, on the restart, and I just looked up, and I saw the marbles, and I thought, this isn’t going to work,” Rahal said. “So I literally just said to myself, take fourth, let’s go home.

“And next thing I know, I saw smoke, and bam. It worked out even prettier than that.”

So, is there really something to this deal of starting last at St. Pete? Rahal certainly seems to think so.

“You might as well start last,” he said after Sunday’s race. “If you look at the last few years, I think it’s the best place to start.

“It worked out well for Seb (Bourdais) last year. I’m trying to think who else won that started pretty much last or got knocked out. Well, even Bourdais today, he got knocked out (early in the race) and went to the back, went to last, and it worked out.

“Even the year I won here (2008), I got hit by Will (Power), and we went to dead last, and it worked out. I joke around, but it might not be a bad play for the future. I mean, I had tires for days, so I was looking good for race day.”

It wasn’t all that easy, though. While most teams had a substantial amount of preseason testing coming into the weekend, Sunday marked the first time in actual race conditions for the highly-touted new 2018 Dallara body.

The new car has less downforce, putting more control in drivers’ hands. It’s also racier and faster.

But at the same time, like pretty much anything that is radically new, it will take time for drivers to get used to the new car, particularly handling. No, there’s nothing wrong with the handling, it’s just different and a tougher than what drivers became used to with the former chassis.

“These cars are far more demanding than anything we’ve driven — not demanding in the sense that it’s harder to get the speed out, it’s just easier to mess up,” Rahal said. “The window of opportunity, the margin is just very, very, very, very slim.

“The old car, when you’d get a big moment of yaw, like when the car would snap out, I don’t want to say it would straighten itself out, because it had so much downforce and sideforce. This new car doesn’t have anything, so if it snaps, it just keeps going. You saw that today. Guys were in trouble a lot, and certainly the tires have become very tricky in their current form, what we have, and you saw it in the brake zones. There’s going to be a lot of excitement this year. There’s going to be no lack of that for sure.

“It’s the trickiest I think all of us have had it, and I also think in some ways, I know it sounds crazy, in some ways I almost think rookies had a little advantage here this weekend because they don’t have an expectation of what the old car should be here. The first practice session, I literally felt like I was driving somewhere I had never — my mind is telling me, you should be able to do this, you should brake here, you should do that, and you just couldn’t do it, and it was just nasty. This car is so different than anything that I think a lot of us have driven. It’s fun, but it takes a while to adapt.”

Despite how hard it was to drive the new car, at the end, it appeared Rahal adapted to it pretty well and quickly. Going from starting last to finishing second – and almost first, like Bourdais did in last year’s race – has Rahal off in the right direction.

Now, there’s just 16 races left.

“We look at ourselves as championship contenders,” Rahal said. “I don’t care what happened the last two days (Friday’s practices or Saturday’s practice and qualifying), we still believe in that.

“We know that we are. This is a great way to start.”

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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.”