If there’s such a thing as a close sixth place, that’s where Bobby Rahal sees his son Graham in the tightly contested Verizon IndyCar Series championship chase with four races remaining.
Actually, it’s an all-too-familiar position for the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team.
They were fourth and fifth in the points the previous two years, so they’ve become quite accustomed to fighting, among others, the multi-car operations of Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport. After coming home to finish third in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on July 30, Rahal is 58 points behind leader Josef Newgarden of Team Penske.
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But the father and son realize it’s going to take more than respectable runs to have a realistic title shot.
“Unfortunately for us, at least until we get to (the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of) Sonoma where it’s double points, we’ve got to beat the Penskes every race to put ourselves in the hunt,” team co-owner Bobby said, as his son stood nearby fielding postrace interviews at Mid-Ohio. “We’ve got to be P2 or P3 going into Sonoma, not P6. We ought to be pretty damn pleased with the fact we’re mixing it up with Roger (Penske) and his team.
“Our guys are doing a fabulous job and Graham is driving really well. Anything can happen. We’ve got to outperform and they’ve got to underperform, which is a lot to ask. But we’ll be in it. We’ve got a shot.”
In addition to the four Team Penske Chevrolets battling in the top six, there’s also four-time champion Scott Dixon in a Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Whereas Rahal has taken pride in being the top Honda in the past, Ganassi’s offseason switch in engine manufacturers has made even that distinction more challenging.
“Obviously when four of the guys you’re competing against are Penskes, and the fifth is Dixon, it makes life pretty tough,” Graham said. “That’s a pretty strong crop of guys right there. And obviously the Penskes, you know, Helio (Castroneves) has been on his game this year, you have to give him a lot of credit. (Defending champion Simon) Pagenaud has been good. (Will) Power has been good. Newgarden is right there with them.
“I totally expect it’s going to be a tough road to the finish here. I still feel like it’s wide open, but at the same time we need to win. If we can win races, then the rest will take care of itself. I think that’s a fact.”
Bobby distinguished himself as a driver with three Indy car season titles as well as a triumph in the 1986 Indianapolis 500. Graham has experienced his moments of glory, too, but is still in search of a first series title.
An impressive “Graham Slam” weekend sweep of both Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear races in June bumped the son’s career win total to six. In eight of the last nine races, he’s had five top-five finishes and been no worse than ninth. That includes placing sixth in the double-points 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in May.
“I think we’ve been one of the cars, probably the most consistent car, over the last eight races or so,” Graham said.
Although in his 11th full-time Indy car season, he reminds that he’s still in his prime.
“People forget I’m 28,” Graham said. “People think I’m a lot older because I’ve been around a long time. But really, I’m still pretty young. I feel like I have a long career left in this sport.”
The team has made progress in its offseason emphasis to improve qualifying, especially in knockout qualifying on road and street courses. Graham has already reached the Firestone Fast Six – the final round of knockout qualifying – four times this season; the same number he totaled in 2016. He also won the pole and started third for the Detroit races that qualified under a single-round format.
“Qualifying-wise, for sure, we’ve been better,” Bobby said. “And we were better last year than the year before.
“We’ve had some bad luck (in races). Everybody can say that. But generally, when we have bad luck, we’re still running around fifth or sixth. We have the pace. If you have things happen to you and you’re running 20th, yeah, that’s disappointing, but you’re not in the hunt. If you have bad luck happen and you’re running fourth or fifth or sixth, at least you still have the pace. You hope that reliability or good luck or whatever, if it comes into play, you’ve got to be in position to take advantage of it.”
The next stop is Aug. 20 in the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, a 2.5-mile triangular oval where Graham has yet to crack the top 10 in four starts. The series then returns for the first time since 2003 to Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois, for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline on Aug. 26. Rahal has never raced on the 1.25-mile oval outside St. Louis.
The final two races are on permanent road courses. After the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen on Sept. 3, the season concludes with the double-points GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 17. Rahal delivered a career-best second at Sonoma last year.
“We have some races coming up where I feel like the Honda should be very strong,” Graham said. “Pocono should be very good, right? If you look at (how we did on the oval at) Indianapolis, I think we should be strong (at Pocono).
“We’ll see. But it still is open.”
ABC Supply 500 qualifying airs live at 1 p.m. ET Aug. 19 on NBCSN. Live race coverage begins at 2 p.m. Aug. 20 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.