Photo: IndyCar

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

Leave a comment

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.

Follow@KyleMLavigne

Cooper Webb leaps from obscurity to Supercross lead

Leave a comment

Cooper Webb could not even locate the radar tower before the 2019 season began – let alone expect to see his number dead center in the radar screen.

His ascent to 450 competition came with little fanfare. Finishing 13th in Supercross in 2017 and then eighth in Motocross, Webb did not turn many heads as a rookie. Last year was more of the same.

Through Round 7 at Arlington, Webb failed to record a single top five. That elusive result would come the following week at Tampa with a fourth-place finish. Two weeks later, he stood on the podium at Daytona for the only the second time in his Supercross 450s career. But at season’s end, Webb was only ninth in the standings in both Supercross and Motocross.

No one expected much from him when Anaheim rolled around this year.

Webb started the season much the same as he ended 2018. A fifth-place finish in Anaheim I in muddy and equalizing conditions was followed by a modest 10th at Glendale, but the rider from North Carolina believed in himself.

In professional racing, nothing is more difficult than winning the first race. Webb’s first taste of victory came in Heat 1 of the Triple Crown at Anaheim II. Everyone remained skeptical – it was only one heat race after all. The skepticism turned to interest when he won Heat 2. Then Webb finished third in Heat 3 to take the overall victory. It was his first win in the 450 class.

That was all it took to unleash his potential. Webb won the following week in Oakland and then again two weeks later in Minneapolis.

The Supercross riders left Minnesota and headed straight down Interstate 35 to Arlington with four of them separated by two points. All eyes were focused on Ken Roczen, Eli Tomac, Marvin Musquin – and, oh yeah Webb who sat in second.

Someone was likely to stumble in Arlington and the odds on favorite to do so was Webb. That seemed to be confirmed once the feature started. While the three more experienced riders led by Tomac scooted away from the field, Webb was mired outside the top five for the first six lap.

It was Tomac who tripped and fell, however. Webb passed the stricken rider and surged to fifth on Lap 7. He was in fourth by Lap 10 and third on Lap 16.  As Webb and teammate Musquin battled for the second, they slowly reeled in the leader Roczen. Once Webb broke free on the conflict with the runner-up position firmly his, he could see the red plate on Roczen’s Honda like a cape being waved in front of a bull.

Webb charged through the final six laps getting closer and closer until he edged Roczen for the closest finish in Supercross history. It was Webb’s fourth victory of the season, coming only four weeks after he scored his first career win.

Relive the final laps in the video posted above.

As incredible as Webb’s rise to the points lead is, it has been done before.

Last year Jason Anderson seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the standings after Round 2. Anderson held the advantage for the remainder of the year, while Webb has been part of a game of hot potato in which no one seems to want to don the red plate for more than a week.

The pressure continues to mount. Webb now has a two-point advantage over Roczen, who is the only rider to sweep the top five this season.

Webb’s advantage over third is a mere four points, while Musquin has a current five-race streak of podium finishes to his credit.

Tomac’s trouble in Texas serves as a cautionary tale that a single loss of focus can be devastating and Webb still lacks the seat time of his three principal rivals, but last week’s incredible come-from-behind victory is showing that Webb is riding above experience level.

Follow the complete Supercross and Motocross seasons on NBC Sports, Gold.