Photo Credit: Beyond the Flag
Anytime somebody from any sport who has been underperforming for an extended period of time breaks out of their slump in a big way, many people consider the possibility that their over-achievements are all simply a fluke. The same was the case for Graham Rahal, who finished 18th and 19th in the 2013 and 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings, respectively, and then made a statement in 2015 by rising up to 2nd place in the championship standings before the final race of the season and ending up in 4th place in the final standings.
In 2015, Rahal came into the season as one of the series’ worst drivers from the previous two seasons, having placed inside the top 10 in only nine of the 37 races in the 2013 and 2014 seasons and failing to finish eight of those 37 races. When you fail to finish nearly the same amount of races that you place inside the top 10, that is a pretty poor performance all around, and in Rahal’s case, even worse given that it happened over an extended period of time.
However, Rahal opened up last season with four top 10 finishes in the first six races, including three top 5 finishes and two runner-up finishes. Later that season, he also went on to win his first race, which was at Fontana, since 2008, when he won in his series debut at St. Petersburg. The win at Fontana for Rahal came after 124 straight races without a victory spanning that seven-plus year period. He then followed it up with a win three races later at Mid-Ohio.
Rahal ended up finishing last season with 10 top 10 finishes in 16 races with eight top 5 finishes and six podium finishes. After winning his 2nd race of the season at Mid-Ohio, he was in 2nd place in the championship standings within only nine points of the championship leader Juan Pablo Montoya. He only failed to finish one race all season long.
Rahal did all of this in 2015 driving a Honda-powered car despite the clear advantage that the drivers of the Chevrolet-powered cars had all season long at many of the tracks. He finished the season as the highest-placed driver of a Honda-powered car in the championship standings.
A lot of people thought this stellar championship performance of Rahal’s in 2015 could have been a fluke based on the fact that his 2013 and 2014 seasons were so abysmal and none of his championship performances before those seasons were spectacular either. The 2016 season was a crucial one for Rahal to prove to fans that he is for real and his successes of 2015 were not just because of good luck and fortune.
This season did not start on a high note for Rahal, as two of his first three race results were finishes outside of the top 14. He then turned it around with two consecutive top 4 finishes before a span of eight races that included only three top 10 finishes. With three races to go in the season, Rahal sat in 9th place in the championship standings, yet was only 29 points ahead of Sebastien Bourdais, who was in 14th place.
At Texas, Rahal was able to claim his first victory of the season, despite the fact that this season had not been as successful as last season, and he did it in a thrilling manner, winning the race by leading only the last lap by 0.0080 seconds, the 5th closest finish in IndyCar history. This win shot him up to 7th place in the championship standings, where he stayed even after crashing in the following race at Watkins Glen. A 2nd place finish at the double points-paying championship finale at Sonoma shot Rahal up to 5th place in the final championship standings.
Ultimately, Rahal ended up finishing the 2016 season with just six fewer points than the 2015 season in 5th place in the championship standings. He scored 484 points in 16 races in the 2016 season compared to 490 points in 16 races in the 2015 season. He was once again the highest-placed driver of the Honda-powered car in the championship standings, which bodes pretty well for him moving forward.
Rahal is now one of only three drivers to have finished in the top 5 in the IndyCar championship standings in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons, along with Team Penske drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves. He proved that his overall championship performance in 2015 was not a fluke by finishing in the top 5 in the championship standings for the 2nd straight season, and he proved that neither of his wins in 2015 were flukes either by winning another race this season. These things were the exact things that Rahal needed to do this season to cement himself as a legitimate contender for future IndyCar Series championship titles and to prove to the world that his 2015 season was not a fluke.