By David Morgan, Associate Editor
With most of the NTT IndyCar Series field utilizing a three-stop strategy in Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Graham Rahal and his team employed an alternate two-stop strategy and nearly came away with the win as a result.
Starting fourth, Rahal held his ground in the top-five early on, ascending to the lead on lap 18 when the cars in front of him made their way to pit road for the first time. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver would keep his No. 15 Honda out front until lap 26, when it was his turn to hit pit road for service.
Switching from the alternate Firestone reds to the regular black tires during the stop, Rahal returned to the track in fourth place, where he remained until the next pit stop cycle, eventually taking over the lead for a second time on lap 39 when the leaders using the three stop strategy pitted under caution.
While he was able to hold his own on the subsequent restart, the tire advantage that Scott Dixon had eventually won out, with Rahal giving up the lead on lap 48.
Sticking to the two-stop strategy, Rahal ran out the laps until his final pit stop six laps later, switching back to a scuffed set of alternate reds for the final 25 lap run to the finish.
Though he returned to the track all the way back in 19th, Rahal was able to climb back up the running order as the leaders cycled onto pit road for their final stops, eventually rebounding all the way back up to second-place, where he remained until the checkered flag fell.
“I thought the strategy was great,” Rahal said. “Early on I think we were the only guys that — I’m sure others could have made the fuel mileage work perhaps, but with the pace that the leader, Will, was setting, it was just really easy for me to get a huge fuel number, and we just decided right away we’re going for two.
“It played out perfect. Like I said, our first stop we went to, what, lap 26 or something like that, and when I came out of the pits I was right behind the leaders, and I knew from that point I had one more stop and they had two to go and we had a nice gap behind us.
“But look, that’s life. Strategy has burnt me before, and it’s helped us a lot before. We’ve won races because of it. We get that, and Dixie was very fast today. Would we have won? We certainly would have had more of a buffer, but he was definitely quick. As he mentioned, I had to do the blacks mid-race on our second stint, and I struggled with them. I struggled pretty good. So when he caught up to me, it was almost impossible on the blacks, plus fuel saving to keep him behind me.”
Saturday’s runner-up finish marked the first podium finish for Rahal since a third at Texas Motor Speedway last year and was also a stark contrast to his finish in last month’s race at the 1.5-mile oval, where he only managed a 17th place finish, two laps off the pace.
“I was still very proud, I think, of the Fifth Third Bank team, particularly after Dallas,” Rahal said of the team’s rebound. “Dallas was very frustrating for us, as everybody knows, and I thought everybody responded well coming here, and all the cars had pace throughout the weekend.
“But heads down, focus now on Road America, but it was certainly a good points day for us and gets us back into a little bit more of a comfortable points position. Obviously if Dixon keeps winning it doesn’t matter, but we’ll certainly give him everything we’ve got.”
With the momentum of Saturday’s finish, Rahal and the No. 15 team will take some time to recover from the toll the heat in Indianapolis took on him and the remainder of the field before heading on to Road America and Iowa, where a pair of doubleheader weekends await over the next two weeks.
Rahal hasn’t finished outside of the top-10 in his last four starts at Road America and has finished in the top-10 in nine of his last 12 starts at Iowa.
“Obviously, this is a good way to start for this little string,” Rahal said. “I’m not going to lie, man; my neck was toast today. I’m just looking forward to some recovery this week. Road America is going to be cool. We’ve got nice straightaways to breathe a little bit compared to here, and today was definitely a physical race, as Pag said. It was a tough one.
“This is an important time. There’s a lot of points to be had over the next two weeks, so for a team like us who kind of threw away Dallas, this was a good way to start the next few, and we’ve been pretty strong at Road America, we’ve been strong at Iowa in the past, so definitely a good string for our team, and we’re looking forward to it.”