Thursday, July 27, 2023

INDYCAR: Rollercoaster season continues for Graham Rahal at Iowa

PHOTO: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

by William Soquet Staff Writer

Graham Rahal finished last for the 10th time in his NTT IndyCar Series career in Saturday's Hy-Vee Homefront 250 at the Iowa Speedway when his #15 Blue Compass RV Honda crashed out after completing 149 of the race’s 250 laps.

The finish came in Rahal’s 255th series start and was his first since Belle Isle last year, 21 races ago. Across IndyCar Series history, it was the 206th due to crash damage, the 220th for Honda and the 15th for the #15.

Immediately after his Detroit last-place finish in 2022, Rahal found good form in the second half of the year. He finished eighth at Road America and also found top-ten results at Toronto, Iowa, the Indianapolis GP, Gateway, and Portland. After falling to 15th in points with his Detroit exit, he steadily climbed to 11th in points by the end of the season.

Then 2023 rolled around. The season started with promise at St. Petersburg, where Rahal finished sixth and teammate Christian Lundgaard took ninth. The next race at Texas, ended in a crash, and the results started to slip from there, placing 12th at Long Beach and 17th at Barber. He ran tenth at the May Indianapolis GP, a track that RLL has always run well. Then it all came crashing down when Rahal failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. He was later tapped as Stefan Wilson’s sub after the Wilson was injured, but even that led to a finish five laps down after his car failed to start. Detroit led to an early exit, just like last year, with Rahal mired in one of the worst slumps of his career. However, in the last three races, just like in 2022, Rahal has started to drag himself out of the hole. An 11th at Road America was followed by a front row start and 7th-place finish at Mid-Ohio. Toronto seemed to be a turning point, with Lundgaard claiming his first career win and Rahal finishing ninth.

For Iowa, Ed Carpenter returned to the entry list, continuing his slate of ovals in a third car for his team. The larger entry list change once again came from Meyer Shank Racing. Simon Pagenaud was still not cleared to race, and Conor Daly was once again tapped as the sub. The move made sense on a number of fronts – Daly is a renowned oval racer and the team needs to solidify itself in the entrant standings to be in position for Leaders Circle money at the end of the season.

With the usual second practice session reallocated as a morning warmup for the second race of the weekend doubleheader, teams only had one long practice session to set up their cars for the weekend. Josef Newgarden, who went on to dominate the weekend, set the fast lap with a time of 18.24 seconds. Benjamin Pedersen was the only driver who ran over a second slower than Newgarden, clocking a fast lap of 19.31 seconds.

Due to his car failing pre-qualifying technical inspection, Pedersen was not allowed to take a qualifying lap for either race and was given the final starting position. Jack Harvey was assessed a nine-place grid penalty but still secured the 17th-fastest time, slotting him in 26th place at the start.

On the opening lap, Pedersen hung a few car lengths back from the field as the rest of the record 28-car field sorted itself out. He was 5.8 seconds back of polesitter Will Power after one lap, a gap that grew to around 8 seconds the following lap. He steadily fell back during the first run, driving 10 seconds in arrears after Lap 3, 15 seconds back after Lap 7, 20 seconds back after Lap 12 and was lapped on the 17th go-round.

After a brief battle with Agustin Canapino, Rahal settled into 19th during the opening dozen or so laps, down half a dozen spots from his 13th spot in qualifying. He was passed by Felix Rosenqvist on Lap 15 but remained in 20th until Lap 31, when he and Rosenqvist began swapping the spot back and forth. Rahal wound up losing the battle as the leaders approached and was lapped on lap 39.

On the following lap, Colton Herta made his way down on pit road. Herta started sixth and held that spot for the opening 24 laps, but steadily slid back from there to 12th over the course of the opening run. His team decided to open the first round of green flag pit stops, but disaster struck. The left-front wheel nut remained stuck on the wheel, delaying the stop. Compounding that, Herta stalled the car, adding and the clock continued to tick. When everything was said and done, the #26 team spent 43 seconds servicing the car in the pit box, compared to a usual 7 to 10 second stop. Herta went from a lead lap car to three laps down, putting him in last. Although Pedersen had lost a second lap by that point in time, Herta was still behind him.

Eight laps later, Pedersen made his first pit stop of the day, dropping him another two laps to the leader. It also allowed Herta to pass him in the running order, relegating the #55 to last place again. While Pedersen held at four laps down during most of the second run, the pace began to drop near the end, and after a third pit stop on Lap 115, Pedersen was eight laps down. By then, his was the only car running on the same lap, eliminating any chance of gaining positions on-track.

Rahal's was the fifth car to pit during the opening green flag cycle, giving up the 19th position to do so on Lap 48. He exited the pits in 24th but cycled up to ninth, gaining his lap back that he lost during the opening run. After letting Alex Palou by during the early portion of the stint, Rahal spent about ten laps in 10th before losing a handful of positions and getting lapped on Lap 81, presumably due to a bobble on track. He settled into 16th for the duration of the second run and pitted more towards the middle of the field during the ensuing round of pit stops, cycling back out in 14th. Then the tumble began, with David Malukas, Rosenqvist, Jack Harvey, Callum Ilott and Helio Castroneves passing Rahal in the span of a dozen laps.

On Lap 151, Rahal got high into the marbles in Turns 3 and 4 and shot up the track, making contact with the outside wall at the exit of Turn 4. The contact broke the steering on the right front, and Rahal narrowly missed Kyle Kirkwood as he helplessly slid back down the frontstretch. His car came to rest in the grass, done for the day. Rahal's was the only car that retired. Pedersen languished to the finish, 15 laps down. Rounding out the Bottom Five were Santino Ferrucci, Sting Ray Robb, and Ed Carpenter.

*The finish moved Rahal into sole possession of fourth place on IndyCar’s (1997-present) last place finisher list. He trails Sato (16), Marco Andretti (14) and Carpenter (11)
*Rahal’s 149 laps completed are the second-most by a last-place finisher at Iowa. Sage Karam completed 193 of 300 laps before crashing Carlin’s #31 car in 2019.
*While Rahal’s first three IndyCar last-place finishes all came on ovals, this is his first last-place finish on an oval since Phoenix in 2017.

28) #15-Graham Rahal / 149 laps / crash
27) #55-Benjamin Pedersen / 235 laps / running
26) #14-Santino Ferrucci / 241 laps / running
25) #51-Sting Ray Robb / 242 laps / running
24) #33-Ed Carpenter / 243 laps / running

1st) Honda (8)
2nd) Chevrolet (3)

1st) Chip Ganassi Racing, Dale Coyne Racing (3)
2nd) A.J. Foyt Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2)
3rd) Juncos Hollinger Racing (1)


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