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Graham Rahal follows dad's path to Detroit Grand Prix glory

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit — Graham Rahal showed he was fast in his No. 15  Honda just as soon as it got off his trailer Friday morning, then displaying the power by winning the pole Saturday morning for Race No. 1 of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix IndyCar doubleheader on Belle Isle.

Rahal, 28, backed up his strong showings — and brash statements — by leading 55 of the 70-lap race around the 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course to win for the first time at Belle Isle, a track his father Bobby Rahal won on 25 years ago.

It was Rahal's fifth career victory. He has won at least one race in each of the last three years.

Rahal backed up his talk in his news conference Friday, after having the second fastest practice time, saying that he felt he could dominate the race if he qualified up front.

“As I said to you guys yesterday, trust me a lot of drivers didn’t like my comment about that, I felt like I could dominate if I got out front, but I didn’t lie,” said Rahal, who became the seventh different winner in as many races this year and will try to sweep the doubleheader Sunday. “I didn’t say that in any other way other than I felt that confident with the car. I just knew if I got out in clean air we could do what we did today. I’m very fortunate to have the team around me. The guys did a tremendous job.

“Someone told me the last American to win here was Michael Andretti in 1996, so that’s cool since this city is so Americana in so many ways. It’s great to add to the family legacy, too.”

Rahal earned the pole, his first since 2009 with a track record time of 1:13.968 mph with Helio Castroneves also starting on the front row but having his track record qualifying run (1:13.890) wiped away due to failing to slow down during a caution.

Scott Dixon, who escaped injury despite a frightening crash in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, finished second in his No. 9 Honda, 6.1 seconds behind Rahal.

James Hinchcliffe gave Honda a 1-2-3 finish — spoiling the day for race sponsor Chevrolet — battling back from the back of the field after a spinning on the first lap.

Rahal’s victory was aided by a strong strategy with his team pitting only twice compared to other team’s three stops.

“It doesn’t get any better than today,” said Bobby Rahal — also Graham's car owner — whose team got its first pole since 2007. “To see him (Graham) have a race like today really to me headlines his talent because there’s a lot of people that sometimes I don’t think give him the respect that he’s due. But, to see him run today, no mistakes, you just feel tremendous pride and so I’m just so happy for him, and he’s going to be tough to beat tomorrow and I think that’s pretty clear."

Castroneves, running second to Rahal, pitted on Lap 13 to come in for black primary tires to replace his alternate red tires while Rahal went longer on his red tires, lasting 23 laps and building an eight-second lead before first pitting.

“I think what really made the difference is on the reds, early on we were able to go fast and go long and only Scott (Dixon) and (Alexander) Rossi kind of hung with us and that really made the difference,”  Bobby Rahal said. “And, when we came back on with blacks we were in P (position) 4 or 5 instead of P 10 or 11, and luckily there weren’t many yellows (cautions), too.”

Castroneves owned the lead on Lap 37 but pitted for the second time and Rahal took over the lead.

Rahal took his final pit stop on Lap 48 and by Lap 51 he held a 2.4-second lead on Castroneves, who still needed to pit one more time.

Team Penske drivers were led by Josef Newgarden, whose fourth place was the best among Chevrolet competitors. Castroneves finished seventh, 33.1 seconds off the pace, defending series champion Simon Pagenaud, 16th, more than a minute off the pace and Will Power, 18th, one lap down.

Dixon was pleased with his second place finishing, giving him the points lead, three ahead of Castroneves with Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato (eighth place), 17 points behind Dixon.

“My foot’s not great, but it’s working,” Dixon said. “I felt pretty worn out and was glad the race was over when it was.  I’m just happy we came out of today unscathed and we got some good points, got the points lead which is huge for us.

“We came close. I think we had a good car in the long run and closed the gap towards the end to three or four seconds, so qualifying is going to be important tomorrow.”

No doubt, Dixon was lucky to escape injury at Indy, but so was Rahal’s wife, NHRA Funny Car driver Courtney (Force) on Friday night in New Hampshire.

Force crashed, but she too escaped injury and will continue to compete this weekend.

“I’ve seen that with others,” said Rahal of other NHRA drivers crashing, “but never her. When it’s her I feel a little different, but she was OK. I told her we had enough action for the year.”

It was Rahal’s first top-five finish of the season. He entered the day 15th in points, but now has momentum, and confidence, on his side.

Graham Rahal raises the trophy after winning the first race of the IndyCar Detroit Grand Prix auto racing doubleheader Saturday in Detroit.