Ask most Verizon IndyCar Series drivers and they'll tell you that the championship battle really gets underway once the Indianapolis 500 is in the books.
If that's true, everyone better keep an eye on Graham Rahal.
The No. 15 Soldier Strong / TurnsForTroops.com Honda driver arrived at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear 15th in points before becoming only the second driver to sweep a street-course doubleheader weekend.
Now in sixth and only 52 points out of top spot, Rahal's Detroit performance makes him an instant contender for the 2017 title just as the series heads to Texas Motor Speedway, where he scored a dramatic last-lap victory in 2016. Another strong performance in Saturday's Rainguard Water Sealers 600 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network) would put Rahal right in the thick of things.
“All around, a spectacular weekend for us,” said Rahal, who took the checkered flag on Saturday and Sunday at the Raceway at Belle Isle Park’s temporary street circuit.
“We're not going to take it for granted. We want to keep focusing. We're sixth in points. A lot of opportunity ahead, including next weekend, where we won last year and we know we can win again.”
Until Rahal's pair of triumphs, the only other driver to win both races of a street-course doubleheader was Scott Dixon, who dominated the Toronto weekend in 2013 and went on to win the third of his four Verizon IndyCar Series championships that year. Dixon is the points leader now with 303.
In addition to taking two wins in Detroit, Rahal also became the first repeat winner of 2017 after seven different drivers scored victories in the first seven races of the season. That kind of competitiveness is exactly what makes winning a Verizon IndyCar Series title so difficult, let alone trying to take your second consecutive championship, said reigning champion Simon Pagenaud.
“It's very hard to repeat,” the Team Penske driver said. “You have to be so complete throughout the season and you have to be so good everywhere. It's about being consistent and always being there.”
Although drivers concentrate on getting the Indy 500 right and don't worry about the title fight until later, there's also no doubt the double points awarded in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” can swing things in a huge way and launch a title challenge.
Just ask 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato.
The No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda driver followed his win in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil with an eighth and fourth in Detroit to close to within striking distance of the top spot in points.
The first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500 rode the May momentum to move into third overall by the end of the Detroit weekend, 11 points behind Dixon.
“I think confidence is part of the sport,” said Sato, who was 10th in points and 94 out of first going into the Indianapolis 500.
“You believe in yourself, believe the people who (are) supporting (you), go together. You have to believe the car, too, just going to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 230 miles per hour, to here 170 (at Belle Isle), but still the wall, you talk about inches.”
And even when things don't go your way in the Indy 500, sometimes a good performance that shows what you can do can still push the team forward as much as a top result. Rahal's Indy 500 was ruined by a late tire puncture that dropped him from fifth to 12th, but contending for the win until misfortune struck gave the No. 15 team a good boost.
“I think the reason why we started off pretty strong this weekend is because we had a great finish to May,” Rahal said. “We didn't have the luck, but we had a car that could have won that race, no doubt. So I think our guys felt confident in that. We showed up here. We stuck to our guns. We just carried on what we had started.”
In the end, 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay has some simple advice for drivers who want to be title contenders: When they get into their car to race, they always go for it.
“If you are going for the championship, you are thinking about race wins and podiums,” said Hunter-Reay, who drives the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport.
“Getting the maximum out of the car on any given weekend is what gives you a championship. Going out and thinking, 'I'm going to bank sixth today because it's solid points' isn't good, because it doesn’t work that way."