Lundgaard’s pole caps a day of resurgence out of the RLL camp, can they turn it into a win in Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

INDIANAPOLIS — This is exactly what Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing needed. That shot in the arm. The chance to show that all the hard work behind the scenes and all of these off-season changes were going to pay off.

See, coming into the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, RLL was singing a different tune. They expected to be better. However, the results didn’t reflect the words. The aura around them was that they were sliding more and more from one of the bigger teams in the sport to just a midfield organization.

That’s why Christian Lundgaard’s pole on Friday from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway could go a long way in RLL’s trajectory of being back.

At the time of their last victory here on these same grounds in 2020, they were closing the gap to the “Big 2” and quickly ascending to a team that was going to rival Andretti Autosport for the third best team in the series.

At that time, from 2016 through Aug. 2020, no one had won as many races in the series than Team Penske. They won 36 of the 74 races run. Chip Ganassi Racing was next at 12 while Andretti Autosport had won 10 times in that span. Combined, that’s 59 race wins for the “Big 3” in 74 races run.

But, RLL was closing the gap. They won seven times in 4 1/2 years. The next best? Two.

What about since this new car came out in 2018? From 2018 through the 2020 Indy 500, Penske, Ganassi and Andretti had combined to win 33 of the 41 races run in that span. RLL had four wins which was double from the next best at 2.

Now, if you look at the breakdown of wins since 2018 through that Indy 500 triumph, Penske has 17, Ganassi 9, Andretti 7. RLL had 4. That gap as you can see from the bottom of the “Big 3” to RLL was shrinking.


It’s blossomed the wrong direction.

RLL hasn’t won a race, have had just 12 top five finishes and took 2 of the 3 spots on the last row for last years Indy 500. They’re consistently coming from behind via rough Friday practices, chasing the setups for qualifying and by time they get the race pace down, they’re already midpack to start with.

Then came Friday.

Lundgaard was second in both practice sessions. Jack Harvey was fifth. They’d turn those performances into a pole for Lundgaard and a fourth place start for Harvey. Graham Rahal starts eighth.

“All the resources that’s been put into this has not been rewarded up until now,” Lundgaard said following his first career pole. “The podium here last year was a step, and we had a very good end to the season last year, but we weren’t able to continue that going into the beginning of this season, and it annoyed me a lot because obviously I’m asking the questions, what have we done different. There wasn’t really anything that was dramatically different that should drastically change it as much as it was from the end of the season to the beginning of the season, so now sitting here I’m only proud of this team. Everything we’ve achieved up until now, I would say we set the benchmark in Barber a couple of weeks ago where we were pretty much consistently sixth throughout the whole week, to now start off with a pole.”

Qualifying is one thing, can they turn it into race day pace? They have every other race, so their Friday should send a message to the paddock that they can dominate Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).

For whatever reason, Lundgaard is just good here. He’s qualified fourth, eighth, sixth and now first in four tries.

“I mean, I can finally call this home, I think,” Lundgaard joked. “Waking up this morning, I knew we were going to have a chance to get into the Fast Six because we’ve done that pretty much every time we’ve been here, at least with me, and I hoped it was going to happen, and now I can sit here and it’s a reality, which is pretty cool.”

This is also the spot that Lundgaard made his INDYCAR debut just 21 months ago. It’s the spot of his first podium (2nd) last July. Now, it’s the spot of his first pole. However, he notes that he didn’t necessarily want all these firsts to come here.

“The one thing I was annoyed about having my podium here last year was I didn’t want to have it here because I did my debut here and I didn’t want people to think this was just the track that I was fast at, and we showed up in Nashville and was P1 in the first session the weekend after,” Lundgaard told me.

“This is what I want to do now. Now we’re starting the race from pole, but we also need to win the race. We need to take it step by step and see what we can do tomorrow and back it up for the proper month of May.”

Rahal hasn’t won a race since 2017 (94 races). Harvey (0-for-69) and Lundgaard (0-for-22) have never won. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has won 29 times, but none since Takuma Sato’s win in the 2020 Indy 500 (44 races). Can a couple of these droughts come to a halt on Saturday?

In 12 of the 13 previous races on the 2.439-mile road course, each of those 12 were won via a top 8 starter. In fact, three of the last four GMR Grand Prix’s were won from a driver coming from Row 4 (Rahal).

3 of the 4 races this season were won from the fourth-place starter (Harvey). The other race this season was won from the pole (Lundgaard).

Maybe they can close the deal and change the trajectory again of this program.

“We’re on an upward slope,” said Lundgaard. “We want to improve and we need to improve. I know how much work goes into every single little aspect of making this car faster.

“Looking at our results, we haven’t really been able to. I think we’re all a little disappointed in St. Pete, definitely disappointed in Long Beach. We expected to be faster, and we weren’t. So we are hard on ourselves, as well.

“Once these days come, we expect to be here, but we’ve also got to reward ourselves and understand that all the hard work does pay off eventually, and I think this is just a sign of hard work paying off, but we also need to keep in mind the race is tomorrow, we need to win tomorrow’s race, and that’s the target.

“At this point I think we’ll be pretty disappointed in second tomorrow or just a podium. I think we’re absolutely going for winning the race, and then I guess we’ll see what happens.”

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