|LEXINGTON, Ohio (August 2, 2015) – Well, well, well. IndyCar has a true championship fight on its hands.|
Who had Graham Rahal riding Juan Pablo Montoya's bumper heading to the season's final two races? Don't look now, but there's also a once-troubled Honda stalking a Chevrolet for IndyCar's biggest crown this side of the Indianapolis 500.
Rahal is within striking distance of his first series title – he's nine points behind Juan Montoya with two races left – because he's driving hard and catching breaks. This time, those two things came together late in the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his home track.
Rahal was running third and stuck in traffic when his crew called him to pit road for final service. Just as the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing car reached pit entrance, the caution came out for a spin elsewhere on the road course.
Rahal didn't know how the caution came to be – more on that later – but he knew what it meant: A chance to make the last part of this season especially interesting.
Because Montoya, the race leader, didn't pit with Rahal, he got stuck behind the pace car until allowed to pull off the track. Costly is the surest word to describe it. By the time the field cycled to its rightful running order, Rahal had the lead and Montoya was 12th.
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"It worked out for some, not for others," Montoya said.
Apparently, Montoya said more than that when told about the caution. Rookie Sage Karam had an odd-looking spin, curious enough to draw confirmation of a post-race review by race control. It's not that Karam would want to help Rahal – they had a run-in in Saturday's qualifying session and weren't on the best of terms following a hotly contested finish last month at Iowa Speedway – but Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon stood to benefit from a caution, too.
Dixon had won the pole in record-breaking time, then led the race's first 22 laps. But a caution for debris on the track dropped him to the back half of the field as others, including Montoya and Rahal, had pitted ahead of him without losing a lap.
At the checkers, Dixon stood fourth, gaining 13 points on Montoya's 11th-place finish. For all the fuss over Rahal and his latest win, Dixon, a three-time series champion, is only 35 points out of the lead with a double-points race coming at Sonoma Raceway on Aug. 30.
Yes, Rahal caught a break when Karam spun, but he showed strength when he had to. Out of push-to-pass opportunities, Rahal still held back former Newman Haas Racing teammate Justin Wilson in a pair of restarts, including one when Wilson edged ahead of Rahal approaching Turn 4, a right-hander. But Rahal had the preferred inside line, and he kept his foot in the throttle deeper than even Wilson expected.
Said Wilson: "I braked so late, but I couldn't physically bend it in to take the line away from him. ... Graham made it pretty clear he was braking late."
To say Rahal wanted this trophy more than anyone else on the track is the ultimate of understatements. His father, Bobby, who won CART races here in 1985 and '86, was present for the first time in four races. Rahal's mother, Debi, was on hand along with Rahal's other siblings. Only fiancée Courtney Force was missing.
"Of all the races, (except for) the 500, this would be the one to me that means the most, the one I'd want to win the most," he said.
Rahal, who now has three IndyCar wins, won for the first time with his mother present. His father was a late addition to being his spotter in Turn 4.
Rahal has now finished first, third, fourth and first since June 27. He has mixed maturity with aggressiveness, and now that object he has a square look at is Montoya clutching the slimmest of a points lead.
Two races left, a nine-point separation. Mighty Team Penske against the single-car entry behind Rahal. Well, well, well.
Credit: Follow Star reporter Curt Cavin.