SONOMA, Calif. – It was all within reach for Graham Rahal.
The second-generation driver turned Verizon IndyCar Series star was one position away from winning the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday to conclude the 2016 season on the highest of notes.
Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak n’ Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, started the day in fifth and hung there for a majority of the first third of the race. However, when the only full-course caution fell at Lap 38 after championship contender Will Power stopped on track, it brought a new element of strategy to the equation.
Electing to go with a three-pit stop strategy, the team was put into fuel conservation mode as it attempted to close on Team Penske driver and race leader Simon Pagenaud.
With shades of their early season duel at Barber Motorsports Park looming, in which the two squared off in a late-race battle that saw a mix of contact, a win for Pagenaud and a damaged front wing for Rahal, the two were ready for the second installment of the rivalry.
The 10-year Indy car veteran, who won Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway in August by a narrow 0.008 of a second, managed to trail the back of Pagenaud, closing to within a second with two laps to go before settling for runner-up behind the eventual race winner and newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion.
Although Rahal finished second, the four-time race winner came away satisfied with the end result.
“It was nice,” Rahal said. “Finally just to have a normal day here was good. (It was) ordinary, went as planned. We made a good strategy decision plan there when Power was slow and with those guys coming in to pit.
“Obviously, we could have been caught out there with that yellow, which has happened a lot to us this year, but we ducked in there in the pits and had a great stop and got by (Juan Pablo) Montoya. I knew then it was going to be Pagenaud and I on who could make the most of it and we had a good run at it. Just came up a little short.”
The hard-fought result cemented the 27-year-old Ohio native in fifth in the championship standings, a huge accomplishment in its own right as also being the highest-rated Honda.
“It means a lot,” Rahal said. “To have a good run for them, again and to be top team for them again, but we’ve just got to keep working hard. We want to win a championship next year.”
Rahal said that hard-earned results like the podium finish at Sonoma are what he and the team will take into the off-season and build upon for 2017.
“You know, our guys have fought very hard to get us in position that we’ve been in,” he said. “It hasn’t come easy, for sure, by any stretch of the imagination. Days like (Sunday), like Texas, that’s the high point and we want to just try and continue to build off that.”