How sweep it is! Rahal makes it 2-for-2 at Grand Prix
Detroit — If Graham Rahal said it once, he said it a dozen times that he felt he could dominate on Belle Isle if he could get his No. 15 Honda up front during the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix IndyCar doubleheader.
Rahal quickly turned his season around, winning Race No. 2 Sunday afternoon on the 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course to become the first driver in the five-year history of the doubleheader on the island to earn the doubleheader sweep.
Rahal was dominant all day while running up front, leading 38 of 67 laps before the race was red flagged — stopped for nearly 20 minutes while cleaning up the track — setting up a two-lap shootout between Rahal and Penske drivers Josef Newgarden and Will Power, along with pole sitter and Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato.
When the two-lap shootout got underway, Rahal again rocketed out front and won by 1.1 seconds over Newgarden, 2.6 over Power and 3.8 seconds over Sato.
Rahal wasn’t happy that the race was red-flagged which was the result of Spencer Pigot’s No. 20 Chevrolet going up in smoke. The first caution came out seconds before when James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Honda suffered mechanical failure.
“I know you want to ultimately put a show on for the fans, but of course as the leader I’m thinking, ‘Come on, a race is a race and we’ve dominated this whole thing,’” Rahal said. “I wasn’t super pleased to see it. It’s hard to get your tires clean (for re-start). All my focus was to get through 1 and 2 well and we did. We earned it today.”
Rahal certainly was thrilled about the weekend outcome. He stepped on the island 15th in points, still looking for his first top-five finish of the season. He left the island sixth in points, leading 96 laps, including 55 of 70 in Race No. 1 on Saturday.
“I probably led more laps this weekend than my entire career combined, so it’s great to get those two wins and trust me we’re hoping to carry this momentum on to the end of the year,” said Rahal, who earned his sixth career victory and now has led 338 laps in his 168-race career. “It was a great weekend, definitely special for me.”
And, Rahal was aided by a caution-free race for the first 66 laps. He won the race Saturday in what was then the fewest caution periods (two) in Belle Isle history. He became the first driver to sweep a weekend doubleheader since Scott Dixon at Toronto in 2013.
Newgarden was hoping Rahal would make a mistake on the restart, but it didn’t happen.
“I was hoping Graham was going to make a big mistake and capitalize on it, but it never materialized,” Newgarden said of the re-start. “There’s too many marbles on the tires and you can’t really do anything in that situation. I couldn’t do anything with Rahal and Power couldn't do anything with me.”
Newgarden said he had to qualify better than 13th for a chance to win.
“We had too big of a gap to close; I think we would have closed it, but we would have run out of time to do anything with him,” said Newgarden, who cut the gap from 16 seconds to 5.5 with five laps to go when Rahal struggled in passing Ryan Hunter-Reay. “We just have to qualify a little bit better, that’s what hurt us.”
Rahal, who started third, pitted on Lap 24, one lap after Sato pitted and returned with the lead.
Rahal’s two-pit strategy paid off for the second straight day, showing his power in the No. 15 Honda for Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing while running up front in clean air to build a 12-second lead over Sato by the midway point of the 70-lap race.
“Once I cleared Sato, I felt confident that if I cleared him I’d get in clear air,” Rahal said. “The hardest part about today is that I caught traffic early.”
Bobby Rahal, who won on Belle Isle 25 years ago, was proud of Graham's sweep.
"This is a great weekend, to come here and win both events," Bobby Rahal said. "This is a tough track tough competition and today was maybe a little more difficult than (Saturday), you know not starting on pole since he had to get by Ryan (Hunter-Reay) and get by Takuma. It was just a tougher race, but I'll tell you what, Graham did great. The pit stops were awesome. The in-lap on his first stop was like a second quicker than everybody else and that made a difference. I'm very, very pleased for our guys."
Things got interesting in the final 17 laps for Rahal who couldn’t get past Hunter-Reay who started alongside Sato on the front row.
Hunter-Reay had trouble early on and was nearly a lap off the pace, but wasn’t about to give way to Rahal when the leader was on his tail on Lap 53.
“I caught Hunter-Reay with about 18 to go and it was like 'do you push it or not, do you risk it?’” Rahal said.
Well, Rahal didn’t push it or risk it and still had enough of a lead to earn the sweep.
Rahal held a 14-second lead over Newgarden with 13 laps remaining, but Newgarden cut the deficit to 5.5 seconds with five laps left before Hunter-Reay moved over, allowing Rahal to pass.