Grand Prix journal: Good day for Graham Rahal, not Team Penske

Graham Rahal steps into his IndyCar before the start of the afternoon practice session on the first day of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Friday morning. [ LUIS SANTANA   |   Times ]
Graham Rahal steps into his IndyCar before the start of the afternoon practice session on the first day of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Friday morning. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published March 11 2018
Updated March 11 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — When Graham Rahal won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg a decade ago in his first IndyCar race, he assumed he'd be back for more — wins in the series, and victories here.

It didn't happen quite like that. Rahal went six years without an IndyCar win and didn't return to the podium here until Sunday, when he drove the car from last to second.

"You might as well start last," Rahal said. "If you look at the last few years, I think it's the best place to start."

He's right; Sebastien Bourdais started last in 2017 and won, and Rahal came from behind to win the Grand Prix in 2008.

Rahal was bracing for a worse finish Sunday. At the restart with two laps left, he considered making a run at Bourdais to take third. But after seeing the slick marbles in the first corner, he backed off.

"I literally just said to myself, 'Take fourth. Let's go home,' " Rahal said. "And next thing I know, I saw smoke, and bam. It worked out even prettier than that."

That's because the wreck between leader Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi knocked both of them out of contention for the win and allowed Rahal to slide through for his first podium finish since June.

Off day for Penske

Will Power started on the front row as usual but didn't stay out front long.
Power, who started second, spun on Lap 1; he said he lost control after pole-sitter Wickens made contact with his car. After that Power spent the day trying to fight his way forward and finished 10th.

Power praised the series' new car, though.

"It was actually good racing, you could get close to people," Power said. "Much, much better car for racing, to be honest."

His finish was part of a rough day for Team Penske, which has won eight times in St. Petersburg. Defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden finished seventh and 2016 series titlist Simon Pagenaud was 13th.

Simon Pagenaud (22) and Gabby Chaves (88) round the first turn at the start of the 2018 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday. (GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times)

A shortened show

The Pirelli World Challenge GTS race ended early, with five-time champion Lawson Aschenbach completing a weekend sweep by leading all 30 laps.
With about nine minutes left, a caution flag came out when Steve Burns and Vinnie Allegretta collided coming out of the kink between Turns 9 and 10. Allegretta's Ford Mustang hit the wall, then he came off the wall and hit Burns' Ginetta G55.

Six different manufacturers finished in the top six spots. Aschenbach's Chevrolet Camaro GT4 was followed by Gabriele Piana (Porsche), James Sofronas (Audi), Ian James (Panoz), Jade Buford (Ford) and Harry Gottsacker (SIN). Tampa's Jason Bell was 14th for Brooksville-based M1 GT Racing.

Other support race winners: Rinus VeeKay (weekend sweep in Pro Mazda), Santi Urrutia (Indy Lights), Alex Baron (USF2000) and Scott Hargrove (World Challenge GT).

Cars of the Pirelli World Challenge GTS race around Turn 10 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. (LUIS SANTANA | Times)

They said it

"It looked like another record crowd to me." — race co-owner Kevin Savoree. The Grand Prix reported record crowds in the two previous years

"It is literally, I mean, far worse than any ice I've driven on in my life growing up in the Midwest. It was ridiculous." — Rahal, on the slick first turn in IndyCar's new aero kits after restarts

By the numbers

366 On-track passes Sunday, the most in Grand Prix history

322 Race's previous record for on-track passes

37 Career victories for Bourdais, sixth-most in IndyCar history

30 Laps led by Bourdais

6 Honda-powered cars in the top six, shutting out Chevrolet

16 Final position for Zach Veach, best of all rookies — a surprise after three rookies qualified inside the top four

Times correspondent Jim Tomlin contributed to this report.