By Josh Farmer, Contributing Writer
Strategy and good luck vaulted Graham Rahal to a second place finish in today’s Verizon IndyCar Series season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It marked the Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing driver’s first podium at St. Pete since his first win at the 1.8-mile street circuit in 2008.
As calamity ensued between race leaders Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi on a restart with two laps remaining, Rahal followed race winner Sebastien Bourdais through the chaos as the race ended under the yellow flag.
Rahal noted that he was caught off guard by the action ahead of him.
“I had a shot at Bourdais, but I kept saying to myself ‘Just take fourth, just take fourth,” Rahal said. “Take the points and move on.’ There was a lot of action there. Then I saw Rossi and thought ‘Oh, here we go. This could be perfect.’
“And sure enough, bam! We got a little luck and you have to have that.”
Rahal, who started last after spinning in qualifying and losing his two fastest laps, started advantageous as he passed five cars on the opening lap just before the yellow flew for Tony Kanaan’s stalled No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet.
His climb was hindered when he overcooked it in Turn 1 and collided with Spencer Pigot’s No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. He escaped a penalty and pitted on lap eight for fuel, tires and repairs.
Now on an alternate strategy, Rahal made up track position over the next few laps as many drivers ahead pitted and was running in the top 10 by Lap 22.
A chain of yellow flags paid dividends for Rahal and allowed him to conserve fuel and maintain his track position as the race entered its final half. Rahal was looking to end the day with a top five until Rene Binder’s contact with the Turn 12 wall on lap 102 brought out the yellow flag.
The race came down a two-lap shootout as Max Chilton crashed on Lap 107 truncated the restart. The AMR Safety team quickly cleared the disabled No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet as the field formed up.
As Rossi and Wickens came together in Turn 1, Rahal followed Bourdais through the incident just as the caution flag flew. Bourdais went on to win the race.
The 29-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, noted that the race went exactly the way it needed to.
“Our guys had good pit stops and frankly good strategy,” Rahal said. “We had the pace when we needed it, we could save a lot of fuel when we needed it, we could make passes if we needed to.”
Despite missing out on the win, Rahal took it in stride considering that he is off to his best season start.
“We haven’t had a good start to the season in a long time,” he added. “I guess the last time was 2008 when I won this thing. Our whole team did a fabulous job and it was an awesome day for Honda.”