INDIANAPOLIS — Graham Rahal trusts his ability as a race car driver. He doesn’t lack confidence in that either. He quite honestly shouldn’t. He’s as good as they are in the series right now. I know that. He knows that. His fans know that. The problem is, the stats don’t necessarily show it. 6 wins in 244 NTT INDYCAR Series starts tell one story. Rahal though tells a different one. It’s one that he’s not wrong in.
Haters will live on the fact that he has 6 wins. He hears that. The thing is, those 6 wins would be so much higher if they could get one simple area fixed within the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing organization. While it sounds simple, it’s not necessarily an easy fix either.
I’ve said for years now, if Rahal can start closer to the front, then watch out. It’s not just me. Several drivers I’ve talked to over the years have said the same thing. Rahal can gas it. His race craft is as good as there is in the series today. Don’t believe me?
In the same 244 starts that I reference above, he also has 128 top 10 finishes in them too. 52% of his races in the most competitive era of open wheel racing have seen him come away with a top 10 result. What’s even impressive about that is, most of the time he’s coming from behind in doing so.
It’s why he says if he started consistently towards the front on race day, he’d have way more than six wins at this point of his career.
Rahal, has consistently qualified outside the top 10. He started outside the top 10 in 10 of the 16 races himself last year and has been 11th, 27th and 13th so far this year. Despite that, he has a pair of top 10 finishes in 3 races run this season too.
While some will blame the qualifying pace on him, I say not so fast my friend. It’s absolutely not just on him. This is a time wide problem and one that’s been lagging for several seasons now.
Some will then say to just fix the lack of qualifying pace. It’s not that simple. The team knows that they need to fix it, but they have to figure out where they’re off too.
Last year, Takuma Sato qualified better than 15th just twice all season. He was 0-for-16 for top 10 starts. This year, in St. Pete, the whole team qualified 11-15-23. In Texas, it was 24-25-27. They took three of the last four starting spots. For Long Beach, they were 13-20-21.
This isn’t just a Rahal problem. It’s an RLL problem.
“People have accused me for not being a good qualifier for years. Now you’ve got a guy like Jack Harvey who’s been known as a great qualifier, I’m out qualifying him,” Rahal told me on Wednesday during the INDYCAR test session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “He’s new to the team and I’m not trying to throw any shade at him, but it’s not that. I can fucking drive for God’s sake.”
Rahal says that the glaring problem for them on qual trim is that when you have to push your cars like you do in qualifying, they change dramatically in trying to get that last little bit. In a day and age where the top to bottom in qualifying is separated by less than a second, you can’t afford to push any less than 100%.
The difference between Saturday’s and Sunday’s in INDYCAR is that on race pace, you’re not pushing as hard because you have to balance tire fall off and other factors. In qualifying, it’s just straight up pace and how much you can get out of your car.
Rahal, can’t overdrive the car like he’d like to in qualifying pace.
“Our problem is our cars are good at 90% but when you get pushed to 100 in qualifying, like at Long Beach, it turns to the devil,” he continued. “It really does. Jack had that. Christian’s struggling. Me. We qualified 13th and it’s not terrible but you go into race day and you’re only going to win without a lot of luck. 7th was a hell of a race. We’ve got to start up front. Everybody around here knows that. If we can get there, we will win a lot of races. There’s no doubt about that. As a team too. If we can get Jack there and Christian up there.
“If we can get everybody there we’re going to be strong. It seemingly has been our Achilles Heel for a long time but for some reason we can’t get it better.”
Is that what he feels is holding him back? Is that the part that’s keeping Graham Rahal from a championship?
“I definitely feel like it,” he said. “I think that the team around is, the mechanics, the pit stops have been awesome, the mechanical reliability in the cars is always exceptional. Our engineers do great work. Nobody’s pointing the finger. I’ll bet you our guys work as hard if not harder than anyone else around here. We’re just missing a few things. Those are hard when you don’t know what they are. It’s all easier said than done.
“I do feel, I absolutely personally feel that I can win championships here. I know maybe many others don’t say that about me but I absolutely feel that as a racer, I feel and I think you guys now that, I’m not egotistical or anything, I feel like as a pure racer, I’m a top 3 racer in this whole sport. But, if we can qualify, we can be there. We’ve got to qualify. As you see this year, it’s the whole time. Even last year with Takuma, I think he only outqualified me a couple of times. The team we’ve got to get qualifying sorted out. If we do, we’ll be there. I have no doubt. As long as I’m not making mistakes we’ll be there.”
Rahal also wanted to make it perfectly clear here that he’s not making excuses and blaming any one person for this issue. He’s not throwing anyone on RLL under a bus. He in fact gave them praise and made it clear this wasn’t a them vs. me issue. It’s a team wide issue that they have to acknowledge and get corrected.
He’s 100% right too. It’s been heard that if he can qualify up front, then he can win.
2 of the 3 winners this year came from the front row. All 3 from the top 7. 12 of the 16 last year were won by a top 8 starter. 13 of the 14 races in 2020 were won by a top 10 starter. All 17 in 2019 were won by a top 10 starter.
You get the point.
That’s 45 of the last 50 INDYCAR races being won by a top 10 starter. Rahal only has 23 top 10 starts in that span including only 6 starts in the top 5 during this span.
If he can consistently make up 7-10 positions on race day, imagine what he could do on race day if he starts in the top 5.
Can Indy be that place where it all comes to fruition? It’s a place to where veterans are rewarded more here than most elsewhere. You always hear, this place chooses the winner.
“I do think that this place generally rewards smart racers,” Rahal said. “That’s why Helio (Castroneves), he’s always had a great combination of bravery and brains. That’s why he’s won this thing four times. Last year we were running a smart rise and it can come out and bite you so it doesn’t always work out like that way.”
Last year, Honda finished 1-2 here and if not for a tire literally falling off Rahal’s car while he was in prime position to win this thing, he would have been there too. Can they back that up again this year or has Chevy closed the gap?
“I do think the other guys have closed the gap – a lot,” he said. “We’ve seen that even on the fuel economy side. They have definitely closed the gap significantly. But, I still feel the confidence in Honda. I think we’ll be very good.”
An Indy win would validate what Rahal is saying. Hell, from what I’ve been saying. An Indy win joins you in a new lore. A new realm of judgement. He’s had the talent. He’s there.
He had a car capable of winning in 2020. Sato, his teammate, did instead. He had a car capable of winning in 2021. His tire literally fell off.
2022 is his time.