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.
After his Anaheim 2 crash, Eli Tomac was surprised he was not injured, but despite getting knocked down momentarily, he picked himself up, rode to last week’s win and reascended to the top of the SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Houston. This is the third time in three weeks Tomac has topped the rankings.
Last week, Tomac finished second in his heat before winning the Main – and that translated to near-perfect points in the Power Rankings, which award 100 for a win in the feature and 90 for a heat victory. Tomac’s average was marred by the Houston accident when he finished 13th in that heat before settling just outside the top five in overall standings. Racing is about bouncing back and last year’s Supercross and Motocross champion Tomac did just that as he chases a third consecutive title.
Jason Anderson earned his second consecutive podium finish with a third at Houston. He momentarily rolled past Aaron Plessinger into second during a restart following an accident involving Dylan Ferrandis and held that position for four trips around the track until he was tracked down by Chase Sexton. Afterward Anderson faded and finished 12 seconds off the pace, but along with a heat win, he easily leapfrogged Ken Roczen and Cooper Webb, who struggled in the fourth race of the season.
Webb held his position by passing Roczen in NBC’s SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Houston. Webb has been solid in 2023 with a worst moto result of seventh in the first Triple Crown race at Anaheim 2, but in order to be considered a solid challenger to Tomac he needs to win either a heat or main this week in Tampa.
Roczen was involved in the incident that sidelined Ferrandis in Houston. Racing for eighth at the time, his bike may have sustained some damage when Ferrandis landed on his back tire, but he was not overly impressive in his heat either with a fifth-place finish. That was enough to drop him three positions in the standings, but he still has Tomac in sight.
After his disappointing heat in San Diego when he crashed and sustained enough damage to place him last, Sexton has roared back. He won the overall in Anaheim 2’s Triple Crown format and narrowed the points’ gap slightly on Tomac. Last week he yarded the field in his heat race and won by a wide margin. A modest start in the Main kept him from getting to Tomac’s back wheel early in the Houston round, and he lost a little ground in the championship.
The 250 East division debuted in Houston and with only one race – and therefore no chance yet to stumble – three of their riders jumped to the top of the chart.
Hunter Lawrence had a perfect week with wins in both his main and heat. It wasn’t without drama, however, as he was forced to jump wide early in the feature to avoid contact with Tom Vialle, who was making his Supercross debut. Without a former 250 champion in the field, it is guaranteed someone new will grace the top of the box at Salt Lake City after the season-ender and it looks like it’s going to be Lawrence’s to lose.
It was more than four years ago that Jordon Smith scored his last Supercross podium in Detroit. Despite finishing second that afternoon, he was battling a wrist injury that eventually sidelined him. More injuries have followed, but Smith was a favorite to win the title in 2019 and he’s shown how well he can ride when he’s healthy.
Debuting third in the Houston SuperMotocross Power Rankings, Max Anstie moved from the 450 class last year to 250s in 2023 and the change has gone better than he anticipated. Finishing second in both his heat and main, Anstie was edged by Smith because he finished second behind that rider in their heat. That is Anstie’s first top-10 since finishing sixth at Southwick, Massachusetts last year on his 450. In that race, he scored fifth-place results in both motos.
Haiden Deegan proved the hype surrounding his graduation into the 250 class was well deserved and he landed fourth in his division and fifth overall in the SuperMotocross Power Rankings. In his first professional Supercross race, he finished fourth in his heat. In a field with twice the talent, he finished fourth again in the main. At Houston, he balanced aggression with patience. Now that he has a taste of that success, everyone will be watching him closely at Tampa to see if he can continue tiptoeing on the line.
Michael Mosiman, Jeremy Martin, and Vialle are tied for fifth in the 250 East division and seventh overall.
Vialle is the most notable of these three because he challenged for a podium position during the Main before making a mistake and falling in a turn. Significantly, this was not only his 250 debut, but his first time in Supercross. As with Deegan, he has generated a lot of attention for the coming weeks.
Hunter Lawrence – E
[1 Main; 1 Heat Win]
Jordon Smith – E
[1 Heat Win]
Max Anstie – E
Jett Lawrence – W
[2 Main; 2 Heat Wins]
Haiden Deegan – E
Cameron McAdoo – W
[1 Heat Win]
Mitchell Oldenburg – W
Michael Mosiman – E
Jeremy Martin – E
Tom Vialle – E
Stilez Robertson – W
[1 Heat Win]
Chance Hymas – E
Levi Kitchen – W
[1 Main Win]
RJ Hampshire – W
[3 Heat Wins]
Max Vohland – W
Cullin Park – E
Chris Blose – E
Derek Kelley – W
Enzo Lopes – W
Pierce Brown – W
* The NBC Power Rankings assign 100 points to a Main event winner and 90 points for each Heat and Triple Crown win, (Triple Crown wins are included with heat wins below the rider’s name). The points decrement by a percentage equal to the number of riders in the field until the last place rider in each event receives five points. The Power Ranking is the average of these percentage points over the past 45 days.