It was back on March 23rd of this year that I wrote the following passage in my pre-season article for Drafting the Circuits.
“While Graham Rahal surprised many by having the fastest Honda in pre-season testing, I believe that the team will still struggle in 2015. I could be wrong, the younger Rahal had some quick glimpses of the front of the field in 2014, but not enough for a Championship run.”
Now, a little more than four months later, the one statement that rings most true in that paragraph is “I could be wrong.” Indeed, the transformation we have seen at the Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing team is nothing short of impressive.
With barely enough funding for one car, the Hilliard, OH based team began 2015 with the formidable task of challenging the well-funded multi-car operations of Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti. To call this a David vs. Goliath battle is not much of a stretch.
Coming off of a 2014 season that left Graham Rahal 19th in points amongst 20 full-time drivers, expectations were not exactly stellar for the team. With the Honda package appearing to be inferior to that of Chevrolet’s, few would have predicted that, coming into the final two races of this season, RLLR would be on the cusp of overtaking Team Penske for the Championship lead in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Yet, that is exactly the case. There are a number of contributing factors that have led to this. Engineering changes at the team level, Bobby Rahal changing his race-day role, an eleventh-hour deal to sign sponsor Steak n’ Shake, Graham’s happiness in his personal life, some race-day luck, and a never-say-die attitude from the entire team can all be cited as examples.
There was a little controversy along the way. At Fontana, Rahal sped out of his pits with the fuel hose still attached to the car. This left many baffled as to why he wasn’t given a drive-through penalty.
The conspiracy theorists among us were certain that IndyCar wanted to ‘give’ the Rahals a win so badly that they overlooked the incident.
Truth be told, the action of issuing a post-race penalty and fine has been pretty consistent with the way IndyCar has handled pit-lane infractions this season. I recall Montoya running over an air-hose at Indianapolis with no penalty called on-track.
In my mind, I believe that controversy and conspiracy theories are actually beneficial for the growth of the sport. The Fontana event, held in late June, was not only thrilling to watch, but it generated buzz for days, even weeks, after the race. It was such a refreshing change from the Sunday evening mention on the scroll at the bottom of the ESPN screen, with no follow-up.
At the center of it all was Graham Rahal, leading an all-American podium. This past weekend, Graham Rahal took his second win of the season in his home State of Ohio, taking his team to within nine points of the Championship lead.
While the Rahal organization is peaking at precisely the right time, mighty Team Penske seems to be coming unglued at the seams, failing to find victory lane since Indianapolis.
Pre-season, many thought that another Championship for the Captain was a sure thing. While they have still been the dominant force in practice and qualifying, their recent race-day performance has been reminiscent of a one year-old learning to walk, and tripping over his own feet.
Sure, that assessment may seem a bit harsh, but the expectations for Team Penske, with their four-car juggernaut, are far above the rest of the field. Helio Castroneves has been consistent all season long, but has been shut out of victory lane.
Will Power started off strong, but lately he has hit a patch of miscues, mistakes and questionable strategy calls that have dropped him from second in points down to fifth.
Simon Pagenaud, the ‘new guy’ at Team Penske, came into the season with high expectations. On a few occasions, he has looked to be the class of the field, but has failed to translate that into a win. More often than not, he has been just plain mediocre as he learns his new team.
Juan Pablo Montoya started off the season with a win, and then took the Indy 500 in grand fashion. The popular Colombian driver has maintained a healthy points lead all season long, but his season seems to be unraveling as well.
JPM dodged a bullet when he hit the wall at Iowa and still maintained his points lead. He was not so lucky in Mid-Ohio this past weekend. His team’s pit strategy did not line up with an ill-timed caution, shuffling him into mid-field in the closing stages of the event.
That caution, which allowed Rahal to shuffle to the lead, is another bone of contention for the conspiracy theorists. The controversy was fueled by Montoya himself who suggested that the rookie driver at Team Ganassi, Sage Karam, may have spun his car on purpose to benefit his teammate Scott Dixon. The incident was reviewed by IndyCar, and no action was taken. But again, the race was talked about for days after the checkered flag fell.
Dixon currently lies third in points and represents the biggest challenge to both Montoya and Rahal for the Championship.
Rahal may indeed be within striking distance, but there is no reason to stick a fork in Team Penske. Not by a long shot.
The remaining tracks on the schedule, Pocono and Sonoma, may offer a number of scenarios to swing the momentum back to Montoya and Penske, to allow Dixon and Ganassi to stake a claim, or for Rahal to complete a storybook season.