Rahal Will Hitch Ride To Texas With New Buddy Mo

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 5 2017

Graham Rahal will arrive in Texas as hot as the weather. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Graham Rahal says he is a “huge, huge believer” in the power of mo-mentum.

After completing an historic sweep of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader Sunday, Rahal and Mr. Mo will arrive at Texas Motor Speedway as pre-race favorite to defend his victory in Saturday’s version of “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race.”

“I’m excited about Texas,” Rahal said after winning Race 2 around Belle Isle Park’s temporary street-course in the shadows of downtown Motown. “I think it’s going to be a crazy race, once again. But I also know that at the test there (in mid-April), we were very strong. And it should be a track that will suit the Honda package very well. Hopefully we can go down there and get another victory.”

Rahal emerged victorious in Fort Worth last Aug. 27 in “The Resumption” of the rain-plagued Firestone 600 via a dramatic, last-lap pass of James Hinchcliffe. Rahal’s margin of victory of 0.0080-seconds was the closest result in TMS history and fifth-closest in INDYCAR history. The final lap was the only lap Rahal led on the way to recording his first victory at TMS, a mere 76 days after an event originally scheduled to be run on June 11, and then June 12, was rained-out after logging 71 of 248 laps.

Saturday night’s Verizon IndyCar Series event, re-badged as the Rainguard Water Sealers 600, will be contested on a 1.5-mile TMS oval that was repaved during the offseason and re-profiled in Turns 1 and 2 from 24 degrees of banking to 20 degrees. Turns 3 and 4 remain banked at 24-degrees, adding to the intrigue of an event that at times produced three-wide racing and 14 lead changes among eight drivers on a hot Texas summer night.

Live coverage of the season’s ninth event is scheduled for NBC Sports Network and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network at 8 p.m. (EDT)

Rahal finished off a letter-perfect weekend in Detroit Sunday by surviving a two-lap dash to the checkered flag and holding off Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden by 1.1772-seconds to back up his victory Saturday. Rahal, driver of the No. 15 SoldierStrong/TurnsForTroops.com Honda, is the first driver to sweep a Verizon IndyCar Series doubleheader weekend since Scott Dixon won both races on the Streets of Toronto in 2013 for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“All around just a spectacular weekend for us,” said Rahal, who earned the sixth win of his 11-year INDYCAR career and 25th for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. It’s the first time the team co-owned by 1986 Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Rahal, Graham’s father, has won consecutive races since Kenny Brack of Sweden accomplished the feat in 2001 at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan and The Milwaukee Mile.

Rahal’s twin wins vaulted the 28-year-old native of Ohio nine spots in the championship standings into sixth place after eight of 17 races.  Rahal, who won from the third starting position Sunday after dominating from pole on Saturday, is the first driver to register two series victories this season. And given his fitness level, Rahal made the sweep sound almost easy.

“It was fun. I kind of like that just cruising around stuff,” Rahal said. “I wish I could do that more often. I was doing that for a while. Then everything changed. But it was fun. We earned it today. It wasn’t that we started out and just crushed it. Lap 20, we were still running second. We passed (Ryan) Hunter-Reay. At the same time, because of yesterday’s training, I was able to get the fuel number extremely easy today, very easy. And so I was never in a problem for fuel at all today, ever, not once.

So, again, I could run a really strong pace, better than most guys, while saving a ton of fuel. That’s why I say, these weekends, they just don’t happen that often. I could see right away Hunter-Reay was using his rear tires hard. I just kept pacing myself. I knew handful of laps in, he was not going to be looking pretty. Sure enough, you know, he fell off there.

Then we caught (Takuma) Sato, and Taku was fast. He was using a lot of ‘push to pass’ for that early in the race. I just decided, ‘OK, I’m going to start pressing it.’ I hit it twice behind him. Every straight, he was on it. I just decided, ‘OK, I can’t. I can’t burn it like this.’ Yet we were staying with him.

When he pitted, we had a very strong in-and-out lap, and came out with a five-second lead. Just a really good turn of events there. Get clear, run hard, come out in front. From then, it was all in our hands. Just another solid day.

“That’s why I say, these weekends, they just don’t happen that often. We’re the first one to win the double (at Belle Isle). It feels great. Any day you can beat a Penske driver, it means a lot.”

Rahal led 41 of 70 laps Sunday on the bumpy, 2.35-mile/14-turn circuit that has hosted 24 INDYCAR races since 1992. On Saturday, Rahal led 55 of 70 laps while handily dictating the pace.

Sunday’s race ran caution-free until Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda stopped on-course on Lap 66 with a blown engine. As the remaining cars packed up behind the Chevrolet Corvette pace car, Spencer Pigot’s No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet pulled off with smoke trailing from his engine’s turbocharger.

INDYCAR officials red-flagged the race, bringing all cars to a stop in the pits at the conclusion of Lap 67 to give track workers time to clean up both incident areas. Once engines were restarted, the green flag waved at the end of Lap 68 and Rahal pulled away from Newgarden, driver of the No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

“Well, obviously I wasn’t super-geeked about the red flag scenario,” Rahal said. “You know, to me, racing is racing. You know, I would have liked just to finish the thing off, obviously. When we went red, I knew that the lapped car, (of Hunter-Reay), was going to be moved out, that would put Newgarden right behind me. Not that I felt threatened by him, honestly. I knew what his pace was all day. The guys were keeping me up-to-date.

It would have been nice to just close the thing out. We got it done anyway. Had he gotten a run on me, it was going to be very hard to pass me those last two laps. Wasn’t that close.

Josef did a great job today. Obviously, to come from where he did to make it as far up on a three-stop strategy, clearly he had the pace to do that. I was just pleased with our performance to get by Hunter-Reay at the start to save a ton of fuel, to be able to go longer than Sato, to do those two phenomenal laps, and to come out of that pit sequence five seconds ahead is a huge accomplishment for me on a personal level. That was a good sequence there.”

Newgarden parlayed a three-stop pit strategy to move into contention after starting 13th in the 22-car field, but admitted Rahal basically had him covered.

“I think we were all just trying to get to the end there,” said Newgarden, who is in his first season with Team Penske. “It was two (laps) to go and we had marbles all over the (Firestone) tires. In that type of situation, there’s not much you can do, unfortunately. I was hoping Graham was going to make a big mistake because then I would try and capitalize.

“When it’s your weekend, it’s your weekend, and Rahal did a great job, him and his whole team. Good bounce-back for us at Team Penske. I was trying to get Chevy that win, but not enough for today.”

Newgarden posted his best finish on the Streets of Detroit and 13th podium of his INDYCAR career. Newgarden also moved to fifth in the championship standings.

“You know, I mean, look. Here is what I’ll say,” Newgarden added. “Graham did a great job this weekend, right? No hiccups. Kudos to those guys. They deserved the two victories. The only way we would have been close to those guys I think is qualifying better. That’s all I would say. Those guys did a great job. Congrats to them and their entire group.

“If he would have done something stupid, I would have been like, ‘I had you.’ He didn’t do anything bad. Like I said, it was going to be difficult to do anything on that restart. (Will) Power had twice as much ‘push to pass’ than I did. He couldn’t do much with me because with two laps to go, there’s so much pickup on the tires, you’re trying to hold onto the thing at that point.

We stayed single-file. Wasn’t much to do. I was looking for a mistake. That’s the one thing I was looking for, for him (Rahal) to mess up, I would capitalize. It just didn’t present itself.”

Power finished third in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet to give team-owner and Belle Isle race promoter Roger Penske two drivers on the podium. Additionally, Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix officials estimated the event’s three-day attendance at 100,000, up about 5,000 from 2016. However, Honda’s victory sweep certainly did not go over well at General Motors’ glassy Renaissance Center tower overlooking Belle Isle.

Yeah, there is definitely, you know… Honda does have good power right now,” Power said. “Obviously not good reliability. You know, the Chevys have very good reliability. Chevy and Ilmor are very good at reacting. It’s tough to react straightaway because they’re already building engines. You have to do 2,500 miles or the next iteration is already done. It’s more of an offseason project.

But, yeah, Honda has definitely found something, but it’s not reliable. They’ve had so many (failures). It’s more than 15 engines, I think.”

Race 2 pole-sitter and reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Sato, who set a track record in winning the Verizon P1 Award during morning qualifying, led 22 laps but finished fourth in the No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage Andretti Autosport Honda.

“It was a solid result,” said Sato, who completed a whirlwind week of post-Indy 500 travel and interviews in the Motor City. “I think the team did a great job. We did everything we could and made no mistakes, but we just didn’t quite have the speed today. I’m proud of getting on the front row in qualifying and we will work hard the rest of the season.

“I think we kept ourselves in championship contention by finishing P4 and getting points. We need to find out why we lost the speed for the race but we will look at all the data. It was a good day.”

Dixon placed sixth in the No. 9 Camping World Honda, and the four-time series champion retained the point lead he grabbed Saturday. Dixon, who nursed a sore left ankle suffered in a spectacular crash during the Indy 500 last Sunday, now has 303 points _ eight more than Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and 11 more than Sato.

Meanwhile, former Formula One regular Esteban Gutierrez, who started and finished 19th Saturday, qualified 19th for Sunday’s race and finished 14th and on the lead lap. Gutierrez was subbing in the No. 18 UNIFIN Honda fielded by Dale Coyne Racing for the injured Sebastien Bourdais. A four-time Champ Car champion, Bourdais is recuperating from pelvic and hip injuries sustained while qualifying for the Indy 500 on May 20.

“It was quite an experience,” said Gutierrez, currently competing in the Formula E series. “Two days of racing, two days of qualifying, one after the other. It was tough. It was a challenge to come here with no testing, straight into the car with two short practice sessions on one of the most physical tracks on the calendar.

“I want to say thank you to all the team, all the crew. Fantastic experience. I really loved the experience this weekend, we have fantastic mechanics and engineers that supported me and helped me get comfortable with the car and all the procedures. It was pretty special and I’m hopefully looking forward to more.”

Gutierrez, a 25-year-old native of Mexico, spent the2016 FIA Formula One World Championship schedule driving for American-owned Haas F1 Team during its inaugural campaign. Gutierrez, however, never has raced on an oval, leaving his status for TMS and a trip from Motown to Cowtown undecided.

Results Sunday of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear Race 2 Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 2.35-mile/14-turn Raceway at Belle Isle Park, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, aero kit/engine, laps completed and reason out (if any): 
1. (3) Graham Rahal, Honda, 70, Running
2. (13) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 70, Running
3. (7) Will Power, Chevrolet, 70, Running
4. (1) Takuma Sato, Honda, 70, Running
5. (11) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 70, Running
6. (8) Scott Dixon, Honda, 70, Running
7. (14) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 70, Running
8. (12) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 70, Running
9. (4) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 70, Running
10. (15) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 70, Running
11. (22) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 70, Running
12. (10) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 70, Running
13. (9) Marco Andretti, Honda, 70, Running
14. (19) Esteban Gutierrez, Honda, 70, Running
15. (16) Max Chilton, Honda, 69, Running 
16. (6) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 69, Running
17. (2) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 69, Running
18. (18) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 69, Running
19. (20) Oriol Servia, Honda, 69, Running
20. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 65, Mechanical
21. (21) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 65, Mechanical
22. (17) Ed Jones, Honda, 60, Mechanical

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 105.442 mph
Time of race: 1:33:36.3769
Margin of victory: 1.1772-seconds
Cautions: 1 for 2 laps
Lead changes: 5 among 3 drivers

Lap Leaders:
Sato 1-22 
Rahal 23-24 
Newgarden 25-29 
Rahal 30-47 
Newgarden 48-49 
Rahal 50-70 

Verizon IndyCar Series point standings: Dixon 303, Castroneves 295, Sato 292, Pagenaud 278, Newgarden 259, Rahal 251, Rossi 246, Power 233, Kanaan 223, Hinchcliffe 216.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 5 2017
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