IndyCar

Graham Rahal is fastest in Thursday’s Indy 500 practice, followed by Kanaan, Andretti

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Graham Rahal was a completely changed man Thursday.

A day earlier, Rahal struggled during the second full day of practice for the May 27 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He was the 34th fastest (222.102 mph) in the 35-driver field that will attempt to qualify this weekend for the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

But on Thursday, it was as if the clouds parted and sunshine rained down on Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team, as the younger Rahal turned in Thursday’s fastest speed at 226.047 mph in his Honda.

“Today was definitely a better day for sure,” Rahal said. “From the get-go, I knew that yesterday (Wednesday) we didn’t put in any effort to actually put in a decent lap. I found myself all day yesterday in the middle of the pack. It’s impossible to put up a number from that position. So there was a lot of reason and motivation to go and try to put together a decent one today. It was a solid run.

“Today was definitely a good day for us overall just to make a huge step forward in a lot of phases of it. We can all rest a little bit easier.”

2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan was second-fastest (225.896 mph), while Wednesday’s fastest driver, Marco Andretti, was third-fastest Thursday (225.584 mph).

Ed Carpenter was fourth-fastest (225.093 mph), followed by Sage Karam (224.920), defending Verizon IndyCar Series champ Josef Newgarden (224.713), rookie Zachary Claman Demelo(224.665), three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves (224.575), Spencer Pigot (224.251) and Gabby Chaves (224.180).

From an overall standpoint of the first three days and four practice rounds completed so far this week, Andretti remains the fastest driver thanks to Wednesday’s top speed of 227.053 mph.

In fact, the four fastest drivers overall thus far this week all recorded their speeds on Wednesday: Andretti, Scott Dixon (226.329 mph), defending Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato (226.108) and rookie Robert Wickens (226.086).

The final practice before Saturday and Sunday’s qualifying sessions to set the 33-car race day field takes place Friday.

However, teams will be closely watching the skies the next three days, as various forecasts call for the chance of rain between 80 and 100 percent Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Also of note Thursday, the first contact of the week, which also brought out the first non-track inspection yellow caution flag of the week, occurred in the final half-hour of the session.

J.R. Hildebrand grazed the outside wall exiting Turn 4. His car suffered minor to moderate front end and rear end damage.

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Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”