FORT WORTH, Texas – Graham Rahal is riding a wave of momentum like none other in his Verizon IndyCar Series career. He’s just unsure if it will continue.
The 28-year-old Ohio native is coming off a weekend sweep of the doubleheader at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear. He also rolls into Texas Motor Speedway as the defending winner of the Rainguard Water Sealers 600, taking the narrowest victory in the track’s history by 0.008 of a second.
RAINGUARD WATER SEALERS 600: Starting lineup
However, the oval has undergone significant changes since the thriller last season. The banking in Turns 1 and 2 was decreased 4 degrees to 20 degrees and the track surface widened 20 feet to 80 feet in that area, along with a complete repave of the entire 1.5-mile surface.
Rahal qualified 11th for tonight’s race (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network) – the exact middle of the 22-car field. So, the driver of the No. 15 Mi-Jack / Bobby Rahal Automotive Honda isn’t sure exactly where he’ll stack up.
“We’re OK,” Rahal said. “Do we have a lot of pace? No, but we’re OK. The guys are doing a really good job. Everybody is pushing hard, we’ve just got to keep our heads down and keep working. It’s not coming easy to us, necessarily. I think we’re already seeing here once again that there are a lot of different aero configurations that we’ve never seen before.
“So, for us, it’s just a lot of unknowns.”
Several teams tried different downforce levels throughout Friday’s practice sessions, but Rahal was content after experiencing the track conditions at an open test in April.
“We were probably a little conservative there on downforce,” said Rahal, who sits sixth in the championship standings, 52 behind leader Scott Dixon. “It seems like we’ve got a lot of downforce compared to a lot of these other guys, but it is what it is, you just go out there and see what happens.
“It’s a little bit different. We tested here a couple of months ago, so really no major surprises. The tire compound is slightly different and things like that, so there is a little bit to adjust to, but it’s not bad.”
A concern for Rahal and several drivers is the lack of a second racing line through the reconfigured Turns 1 and 2. The high line remained slick through the area in Friday night’s final practice. Rahal hoped that rubber laid down by the NASCAR truck series race later Friday night would aid in developing the second racing line for the Verizon IndyCar Series tonight.
“We’re just pounding laps and trying to learn as much as we can (in practice), but it’s going to be a tough race,” said Rahal. “This thing is going to change a lot over the entire race distance, so to say we learned a ton is hard to say at this point, but it’s the same for everybody.
“Hopefully the trucks will go out there and rubber in the high line a little bit and make our lives a little bit easier (in the race). For sure, it’s going to be a challenge. It’s going to be difficult because the high line in (Turns) 1 and 2 is slippery.”
Sometimes, rubber left on track from other series isn’t compatible with the Firestone tires used in the Verizon IndyCar Series, “but at some point when a track is as green as this place,” Rahal said, “rubber is rubber, right? At some point, it’s just purely getting it cleaned up, up there (on the high racing line). It has got to help us a little.”
Rahal believes overtaking in Turns 1 and 2 will be difficult in tonight’s 248-lap race, without proper preparatory work.
“You’re going to have to set it up on the entry to (Turn) 1 in order to get the guy a lap later in (Turn) 1,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge. It’s not going to be a cakewalk.
“For all of us, there’s going to be a lot of white-knuckle driving out there.”
Rahal will be one of 13 Honda-powered drivers trying to keep the engine/aero kit supplier ahead in the manufacturers’ championship. Honda, which won two races in all of 2016, already has collected five victories in the first eight races of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Entering this weekend, Honda has earned 664 points to 608 for Chevrolet.
Rainguard Water Sealers 600 fast facts:
Race 9 of 17 on the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule
Track: Texas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth, Texas. Tonight’s race will be the 29th in Verizon IndyCar Series history at the track, dating to 1997.
Green flag: 8:45 p.m. ET today
Race distance: 248 laps/357.12 miles
Fuel: 95 gallons of Sunoco E85R ethanol for each car
Fuel stint: Approximately 50 laps for a full stint
TV: NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app, with live coverage beginning at 8 p.m. ET
Radio: Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, available on Sirius 212, XM 209, network affiliates and IndyCar.com., beginning at 8 p.m. ET