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IndyCar: Rahal, Sato already looking forward to 2019 after tough 2018

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The 2018 IndyCar Series season held a lot of promise for Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Rahal was coming off a pair of wins in 2017 and a sixth-place finish in the championship, his third straight top six placing, while Sato was coming off his best IndyCar season to date – he ended 2017 eighth in the standings, and of course triumphed at the Indianapolis 500 with Andretti Autosport.

Things started off with a bang, as Sato, who joined Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing ahead of the year, was fastest in three of the four sessions at the ISM Raceway open test back in February, while Rahal was fastest in the other.

Rahal carried that momentum into the early part of the season, finishing in the top 10 in each of the opening six races, and extended that streak to 10 in the first 11 races.

However, race-winning pace seemed to be missing. Rahal’s only podium in that stretch came on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida to start the year – he finished second – though an additional podium in Race 1 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit went by the wayside after a crash on Lap 46.

Sato, meanwhile, struggled out of the gate, not scoring a top 10 until the fourth race of the year at Barber Motorsports Park, where he finished eighth.

Sato did pick up momentum in the middle of the season, however, with finishes of fifth (Detroit Race 1), fourth (Road America), and third (Iowa Speedway).

And, of course, there was also Sato’s popular win at Portland International Raceway, the second-to-last event of the year.

However, Sato’s year was also blighted by five finishes of 20th or worse, and eight total finishes outside the top 10.

Simultaneously, Rahal’s season lost steam in the second half, thanks in part to quite a bit of bad luck. He had only two top 10s in the final six races, with three finishes of 21st or worse. What’s more, he had his first winless season since 2014.

The season-ending INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma proved to be a microcosm of their seasons. Both showed promising speed in advancing out of the first round of qualifying, but neither could advance to the Firestone Fast Six – Rahal qualified ninth, with Sato in 12th.

Race day saw their weekends get worse, and it was arguably the team’s worst result of the year. Sato’s day came to an end on Lap 15, when the engine in his No. 15 RLL Honda expired in spectacular fashion.

Rahal’s day then essentially came to an end on Lap 44, when he lost power due to a battery issue. Though he did rejoin and actually was running at the finish, Rahal ultimately finished 23rd, 19 laps off the lead.

“What happened in the race was our year in a nutshell,” Rahal lamented. “It was obviously disappointing to have the race end how it did. The guys did a great job and the Total car was pretty good in the race. We lost power. We had a battery that exploded unfortunately and that cost us everything.”

However, despite the disappointing results, Rahal remains highly confident in the team’s ability, and pointed toward their resilience as evidence that big things may be coming.

“It was a very disappointing and frustrating day. I will say this though, we have had a hard year, but I don’t think I have ever been as proud to work with a group of guys as I am this year,” he asserted. “These guys never quit. They focused on doing the best they could, at all times, and busted their butts. I know this is a great sign of things to come.”

Similarly, Sato is excited for the 2019 season, and believes the off-season will give them an opportunity to reset and reload to make a big run at things next year.

“The last race in Sonoma is disappointing but there is a great feeling for next year. We will work hard on development over the winter and come back strong for 2019,” Sato detailed.

Rahal ended 2018 tied for eighth in the standings, with Marco Andretti, with Sato ending up 12th.

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View from the pits: Reporters’ picks for the 103rd Indianapolis 500

INDYCAR / Jason Porter
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It’s Race Day in Indianapolis, and for the first time, the Indianapolis 500 will be on NBC.

Time will tell what impact Mother Nature has on today’s 103rd Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. But no matter what, prerace coverage begins today on NBCSN at 9 a.m. ET, then transitions over to NBC at 11 a.m. ET.

All month long, the INDYCAR on NBC pit reporters have been bringing you the latest breaking news and stories for the Brickyard. Now, Kevin Lee, Kelli Stavast and Marty Snider share their insights from pit road. Read on …

KEVIN LEE

Throughout the last two weeks, one common theme has been, “Don’t crash.” There were five crashes, and four of those teams/drivers ended up in the Last Row Shootout. Two of the three bumped (Patricio O’Ward and Fernando Alonso) were in backup cars following heavy impacts.

Several drivers have consistently been among the strongest. Simon Pagenaud (pictured, left) not only starts on pole but has been strong in race trim as well. All three Ed Carpenter Racing cars are fast and appear good in traffic. Alexander Rossi looks like he can put his car wherever he wants, and Scott Dixon has five championships and 44 IndyCar wins, so he must be watched.

In order, my picks for most likely to drink the milk are Pagenaud, Rossi, Ed Carpenter, Will Power and Dixon.

KELLI STAVAST

A week ago, no one could have predicted that two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren Racing would be bumped from the Indy 500 by a single-car, part-time effort of Juncos Racing and its driver, Kyle Kaiser (pictured, right).  But it happened, and Kaiser now occupies the 33rd and final spot in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

So what next?  I spoke with Kyle five days after the dramatic qualifying effort, and he told me he has never been happier to finish last and that he is still “buzzing” from that experience—an energy he hopes to carry straight through to the race.  He also told me that the response from fans has been positive with people stopping him in public (including at Chipotle) to hug him and congratulate him on making the Big Show.

But reality might have set in for the Californian who now lives in Indy.  During Carb Day’s final practice, the team struggled to get a good handling car for Kyle, who described the day as “challenging.”  But Kaiser also acknowledged that the team made some progress throughout the practice and at the very least collected some data that might help for the 500-miler on Sunday.

Whether he finishes 1st or 31st on Sunday, Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing will have plenty of fond memories to carry with them from the 103rd Indy 500.

MARTY SNIDER

First, we cannot wait to bring you guys the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500. It’s an honor for our entire group to broadcast such an amazing event.

So what do we expect? I have no idea, to be honest. The weather will be a huge factor today. It might be a race to halfway if rain is forecast.  If it’s cooler (mid 70’s ambient, which it looks like it’s going to be), Alexander Rossi (pictured, left) was unstoppable in those conditions last Monday.

But Rossi was very unhappy with his car on Carb Day. For that matter, most teams were. But Rob Edwards of Andretti Autosport explained a few things to Rossi about all of the experimenting they were doing in final practice, and I think that team is in a much better frame of mind heading into the race.

I find it interesting that Simon Pagenaud’s team scuffed in literally every set of tires they will use for today’s race. The No. 22 camp is convinced (and they’re not wrong) that one of the keys to Will Power’s 2018 win was his ability to gain time on out laps after pit stops. Scuffing in tires helps that out lap time. It also allows teams to do a balance check on tires. Good thing they did: Kyle Moyer of Team Penske found two sets that had vibrations, which would have been bad in the race.

Bottom line, I haven’t seen anyone really stand out and show me they can beat Alexander Rossi yet. So I’m going with Rossi to win his second Indy 500.

Enjoy the show friends. It’s going to be a fantastic race!