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Rahal Lands on Podium Again, But Still Hungry for More

Before the Indianapolis Motor Speedway got doused by a downpour late Saturday afternoon, a hungry driver who can’t help but be consumed by a seven-year victory drought had to settle for second place in the second Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

That’s two Verizon IndyCar Series races in a row where Graham Rahal has been the runner-up, the first time in his 116-race career that he’s stood this tall on two podiums in one season. It’s the seventh time he’s ever finished second, all since 2011.

That’s encouraging, for sure, but at times it’s almost impossible for the 26-year-old son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal to accept the reality that he hasn’t won a race since his 2008 series debut at St. Petersburg, Florida.

Rahal spits out the positives and acknowledges how well his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team is working together, but he can’t block out going so long without a victory. Not even after such an impressive run, when his No. 15 Honda started 18th, made up a dozen spots by the first turn of a crash-marred start, came out of the first pit stop in second and stayed there for much of an 82-lap race on the 2.439-mile IMS road course.

“A podium is a podium,” Rahal said somewhat dispassionately after finishing 1.5023 seconds behind Team Penske’s Will Power. “It feels good, you know, but I feel like I’m always second. Every time I’m on the podium, I’m second.”

The humbling observation got the attention of Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya, a 39-year-old Colombian with the most diverse racing background of any driver in the series. His 22 career victories, including the 2000 Indy 500, are spread out in IndyCar, Champ Car, Formula One and NASCAR.

He finished third Saturday, the 65th time Montoya has been that position or better in 414 races.

“Some people would kill for a second, believe me,” Montoya said.

“Hey, I know,” Rahal said. “But it’s only been like seven years for me.”

Montoya exited the day where he started, with the series points lead. Rahal climbed three spots to a tie for fourth with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon. Perhaps more importantly, Rahal has momentum entering the season’s most important race, the 99th Indianapolis 500, on May 24th.

“The 500, that’s what counts,” Rahal said.

His father certainly can attest to that. His 1986 Indy 500 victory was easily the most important of 24 career wins and a 266-race career that included three series championships.

Rahal stood on pit lane and gushed about how his son drove this day.

“He drove the wheels off the car,” said the elder Rahal, 62. “I’m so proud, and obviously happy for Honda. It’s been a pretty bleak week so far.

“Hey, I’ll take second place any day of the week.”

A day earlier after qualifying, his son was visibly upset by a race car that was down as much as 9 mph in the corners.

A day later, Rahal confidence sure seemed to rise.

“It shows that Alabama wasn’t a fluke, doesn’t it?” Bobby Rahal said of his son’s previous run at Barber. “This is a kid whose got tremendous talent, and we’ve seen it before.

“Everybody is clicking. What this does for your confidence is tremendous. A confident driver is the most powerful weapon you can have in your bag.”

Graham Rahal summed up the past two races as being about “2.5 seconds short.” It’s not that he was an overt sourpuss. He smiled and accepted Montoya’s reality about maintaining perspective.

When father met with son to discuss race strategy, Graham told Bobby he would stay outside, in anticipation of somebody in the 25-car field getting together in such a tight spot that is the first turn. Sure enough, Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves couldn’t slow in time and hit Dixon in the rear.

“Sure enough, it worked out perfect,” Graham said.

Excellent pit stops kept him second to Power. But Graham also credited his team for providing a stronger race car. It’s not so much that he’s improved as a driver, he said, but that the team has given him a better ride. That, in turn, enables him to drive better and drive harder.

“I wanted so badly just to win for them,” he said of his team.

If nothing else, Graham has given competitors reason to expect to see him at or near the front.

“At the end of the day, look, this team, this tiny, little one-car team is fighting with Penske,” Graham said. “That feels pretty good.”

Standing on the podium above Victory Lane and armed with an oversized champagne bottle, Graham Rahal tried to spray his fiancee, Courtney Force, down below. 

The stream of bubbly came up just short. Maybe next time.

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