Year of improvement puts Rahal, Newgarden among IndyCar greats for championship

Among the two superteams fighting for the Verizon IndyCar Series championship are two small teams that have risen above the odds to become championship contenders.

Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing stands second in points with two wins (Auto Club Speedway, Mid-Ohio), 34 marks behind points leader Juan Pablo Montoya, and is in a rebirth of his career after finishing 18th and 19th in points the last two seasons.

The reasons for Rahal’s quick rise range from father Bobby Rahal no longer calling the shots on his pitbox to hiring new engineers that better suit him. Explanations aside, Rahal has been pound-for-pound the best driver of the year.

Rahal’s incident with Tristan Vautier last week at Pocono took him from within striking distance to Montoya to dropping him 34 points behind. Thanks to double points, Rahal taking the championship is not impossible but a win would be the best way to do it. Montoya would have to finish 4th or worst and Rahal would need to win the race in order to take the title.

“I think we got to win,” he said. “That’s the best-case scenario. We finish third, fourth, fifth, it becomes obviously a bit more difficult. You’re banking on Juan finishing 12th or worse. I don’t think that’s likely”

Josef Newgarden of CFH Racing stands 6th in points also with two wins (Barber, Mid-Ohio), 87 points out of the lead and is in a coming of age stage of his career, going from finishing 23rd in points in 2012, 14th in 2013, 13th in 2014 and now having a long shot chance at the title in 2015. Long shot meaning that Newgarden would have to win the race and Montoya would have to finish 24th or worst for Newgarden to take the title.

“We basically have to win the race,” said Newgarden. Juan has to break first. Then if Graham would break, that would be great. Then Scott can break down, Will, Helio, then we might win.”

“It would be the craziest story in the history of racing, but it’s possible.”

Everything about Newgarden’s racecraft has improved this year. His qualifying average has gone from as low as 17.5 in 2013 to 8.8 this year. The minor mistakes made by the team, (like the one that cost him the win at Mid-Ohio last year), have been reduced. He won a race on pace at Barber, stole a win in Toronto on strategy and has been close on the ovals but hasn’t sealed the deal yet.

Despite the obvious changes from both men in the mirror, both drivers also feel that the people that they work with has made all the difference and don’t feel intimidated by their multi-car team rivals.

“Just because we’re smaller, we can certainly have people that are just as good if not better,” said Rahal. “I think that’s what has made the difference.”

“It’s been a lot of fun competing with these guys. I want to say, in my opinion, Penske is the standard. They have been around forever, as long as the team’s been around pretty much. So that’s who we kind of compare ourselves to, trying to be like.”

“It’s about the people within the group and I think we have just as good people as Ganassi or Penske,” said Newgarden. “We might not have the depth or maybe the financial support that they have but we do more with less and there is a lot of pride to be put into that.”

“It’s about how you work with your people, the chemistry you have with everyone and I think Rahal has had it this year and I think we’ve had it at CFH Racing and that’s why we’ve had success.”

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Josh Farmer joined the media center in 2012 after first discovering his love of IndyCar racing in 2004 at Auto Club Speedway. He has been an accredited member of the IndyCar media center since 2014 and also contributes to along with The Motorsports Tribune.

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