Rahal sees momentum building to contend for 2018 championship

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There is a saying in sports: Don’t hope to win. Expect to win.

With the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season just five weeks away, Graham Rahal is leaving no doubt on his expectations for a championship this year.

The 29-year-old Ohio native has good reason after coming off successive years finishing fourth, fifth and sixth in the standings for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

“I think we've been a championship contender,” Rahal said Wednesday during a media conference call that included his father, Bobby, co-owner of the team. “I feel we will be this year. I feel really confident in that.”

Gathering momentum since the 2017 season finale has Graham Rahal believing the team can contend for the championship this time around. If it happens, it would be the team’s first since Bobby Rahal won the 1992 title driving for the team he owned.

Bobby Rahal, Cristophe Doussoux, and Graham RahalThe addition of reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Takuma Sato – Graham Rahal’s first full-time teammate since James Jakes in 2013 – as well as Wednesday’s announcement that Total is coming onboard as the team’s official lubricant partner and primary sponsor of Graham’s No. 15 Honda for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, have increased anticipation for the season in the RLL camp. (The photo at top from the partnership announcement shows, from left, Bobby Rahal, Graham Rahal and Christophe Doussoux,  senior vice president of lubricants for Total Specialties USA, Inc.)

Graham Rahal realizes the importance of getting off to a solid start this season – comparing his 2017 results to that of Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, who finished a close second to teammate Josef Newgarden in the standings.

“If you look at our year last year, I saw a statistic that we really didn't score (many) points through the first four races of the year,” Graham Rahal said. “We had a bad start. But from the fifth race, the Indy GP on, for instance, Pagenaud outgained me by two points the remainder of the year. That's impressive. That was with a couple big mistakes, too.

“My point is that our team is capable, our team is ready, our guys are excited. The work ethic that our people have, there's no doubt that we should be championship contenders. I expect that. I know Dad expects that. I know (co-owners) Mr. (Michael) Lanigan, Mr. (David) Letterman, everybody, the entire staff expects that. So we're excited about what's ahead.”

Graham Rahal also believes introduction of the universal aero kit to be used by all teams this year will benefit him. Honda was at a disadvantage at some tracks last year with its kit compared to Chevrolet. That variable no longer exists.

“I think getting a universal aero kit, the new car is going to help us considerably,” he said. “I think the depth of the (RLL) engineering staff, partners like Total, that's a huge deal from a strategic side, things that we can do, that's going to help us in areas that we haven't really pushed much before.

“I think there's a lot of reasons to believe we'll be very strong.”

Rahal and Sato tested the new car for the first time last week at Sebring International Raceway in Florida. All Verizon IndyCar Series teams are slated to participate in a Feb. 9-10 open test at ISM Raceway (the former Phoenix Raceway). It will be RLL’s first experience with the car on an oval, making it a crucial learning experience.

“It's important in part because this car is going to be very different on the short ovals from what I see and from what I hear,” Graham Rahal said. “So being my first exposure (and) Takuma's first to driving the car on that sort of circuit, it's going to be different.

“The challenges are ahead of us. We'll have to go out and try to figure it out, make the most of it.”

The team will participate in at least two more private tests before the 2018 season begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11 (12:30 p.m. ET, ABC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network). This year’s race marks the 10-year anniversary of Graham Rahal collecting his first career Verizon IndyCar Series victory when he became the youngest race winner in Indy car history at 19 years, 3 months, 2 days.

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