Not satisfied with being the best Honda driver in IndyCar, Graham Rahal is making a late push for an unlikely maiden series title. Here we assess his chances ahead of the final 3 races of the 2015 season.
Few thought this year’s compressed schedule was a good idea. Similarly few thought it possible a Honda driver could challenge for the Astor Cup come August. Now Graham Rahal finds himself wishing the latter would come true and ruing the former. Nevertheless he has three races in which to prove pretty much everyone wrong starting at Mid-Ohio this weekend.
Mid-Ohio – August 2
This is a track at which the Ohio native can get his final push off to a strong start. In 2014 he secured a solid top 5 finish, gaining spots over his original qualifying position. Conversely the current championship leader – Juan Montoya – had a race to forget. The natural, undulating characteristics of the course offered design cues to the Barber Motorsports Park circuit where Rahal excelled earlier this season.
Storming through the field in his final stint, Rahal almost snatched the win from fellow American Josef Newgarden. A similar performance and result will be essential to his cause. The big fly on the windshield for Rahal and his father’s eponymous team is of course Scott Dixon. A mere six points behind, the Kiwi has won four of the last six IndyCar races in Lexington. This in itself is a big hurdle to overcome on the road to the Astor Cup for Rahal.
Prediction: top 5 finish at best
Pocono – August 23
On past results alone, IndyCar’s trip to Pennsylvania is one Rahal would prefer not to be making. A DNF last year followed a mixed qualifying starting mid-pack in 14th , only marginally better than the 16th achieved the previous season.
Undoubtedly this one is going to be tricky for Rahal in terms of making any significant ground up on Montoya. The Colombian was on top form here in 2014 and Pocono was where his 2015 title assault began. Pole and the win was accompanied by a second place for team-mate Castroneves and Will Power leading 69 laps before a drive thru penalty.
Pocono is wonderfully unique but there are similarities with Indianapolis offering both hope and concern. At Indy Rahal was the leading Honda taking the fight to the Chevrolets as best he could. There are some signs that the Honda package has improved since May giving the American perhaps a fighting chance. Conversely, Team Penske were rampant at the Brickyard and Ganassi rolled out their usual low-key to high-gear performance. A similar outcome at Pocono will likely torpedo Rahal’s title charge.
Prediction: best of the Honda’s but finishing behind Montoya and/or Dixon.
Sonoma – August 30
The big finale comes at possibly the worst circuit on the current schedule. Frequently overtaking is difficult at best (short of firing in to turn one after a restart or pulling a banzai move in to the final turn) so qualifying will be critical. That however has not been Rahal’s forte this season but he did start in the top 10 here in 2013. Taking a different perspective the rough and tumble that often takes place at Sonoma – as seats for the next season are being decided and racers drive on instinct instead of brain – creates opportunities.
Rahal raced strongly here in 2014 in dispatches but the 18 laps led were more a circumstance of strategy than anything else. Once again the challenge for Rahal will be out scoring both Montoya and Dixon, the former finishing top 5 last season and the latter taking the win. But that is where double-points come in.
How valuable the double-points could be to Rahal depends entirely on Mid-Ohio and Pocono. Barring DNFs at the last race, Rahal needs to be close enough to take advantage of any points swing and that means running strongly – and ahead – of Montoya and Dixon plus Power and Castroneves who are likely to still be in contention.
Prediction – a DNF after going all guns blazing to win the race and the title.
The potential is there for a surprise but realistically the tracks are not ideal for Rahal. Certainly he would much rather hit Fontana or Iowa again along with Pocono and Mid Ohio. And the equation is much more complex than just about him versus Montoya.
Dixon is always strong in the final races and in particular on these circuits. Montoya’s consistency this season will likely steer him to the title with a bit of room to spare. A single DNF this season only came as the result of the serious mechanical failure in Iowa and not due to a mistake on the Colombian’s part. Plus Will Power and Helio Castroneves will keep pushing until the checker falls in California either as title long-shots or potentially tail-gunners for Montoya.
It would similarly be foolish to ignore the impact of interlopers in these deciding races. The final result could well be determined as much by the likes of Tony Kanaan (overdue a win as usual), Josef Newgarden, the rejuvenated Ryan Hunter Reay, Sebastian Bourdais and at Pocono at least, Marco Andretti. And that does not include Penske’s erstwhile fourth driver Simon Pagenaud who desperately wants to string some decent results together before season ends.
Prediction – unless Penske hit more reliability issues or start taking each other out, Rahal will finish at best in third behind champion Montoya and runner-up Dixon. Given his performances in recent seasons that would be a stellar achievement and hopefully go someway towards convincing Honda to stick around beyond 2016.
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