Three years ago, Graham Rahal stunned the IndyCar world with his victory at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg at age 19.
Rahal's win was his lone top-five finish in 2008 for the Newman/Haas team, and he had four top-10 runs. He was winless in 2009 but was more consistent, with five top-five finishes and nine top-10s.
"I felt like 2009 was a breakout year for me," he says.
But last year he lost his regular ride with Newman/Haas because of sponsorship issues. He ended up driving in 12 races for four teams and had one top-five finish and seven top-10s, including ninth in St. Petersburg.
Now with a fresh outlook, a new season and a new sponsor and car, Rahal, driving for Ganassi Racing at this weekend's Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, believes nothing short of another breakout-type season will suffice.
"It has to be," he said during a recent teleconference. "In 2009 it was very rare that we (Newman/Haas) weren't in the top six in qualifying, very rare that we weren't right toward the front, right behind Ganassi and Penske during all the races.
"When I look at that, I certainly feel like we've got a better chance and opportunity this year. We've got better equipment, better personnel."
It has been three months since the announcement that Rahal had signed with his new team, but in many ways it feels much longer for Rahal, who was on the winning team at the 24 Hours of Daytona in January.
"For me, since announcing it in early December, knowing about the deal far before then, it feels like it's been a long time," he said. "There's a lot of anticipating, anxiety growing to get out in the car."
Rahal, the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal, will put his new car and team to an early test at the IndyCar race in St. Petersburg this weekend. He'll be working with Mitch Davis, the highly successful team manager for Chip Ganassi Racing.
"For Chip Ganassi Racing, it's the future," Davis said. "The excitement with Graham, it's unbelievable."
Rahal said Davis was at the top of his wish list when he agreed to the Ganassi deal.
"When we first sat down, (Ganassi team managing director) Mike Hall and I, to talk about people, bouncing names off of each other, Mitch was the first guy on both of our lists," he said. "I worked with Mitch at Newman/Haas. I can tell you when he came into our team in 2008, he had an immediate effect on us. In fact, the first race weekend he was with us was Milwaukee, and we should have been on the pole but qualified second. Our previous best start before then was far worse than that, I can assure you.
"Mitch helped us in a big, big way. He's got a past experience with Ganassi. He was there for a long time before. … He's a great guy.
"His dedication and his desire to work and to work hard is unmatched in this paddock. I can promise anybody that. He's not afraid, even as a team manager, to get arms deep working on the cars, doing whatever is necessary to make sure that we're competitive and to make sure we're safe and got good equipment."
In the three years since Rahal won the Grand Prix, much has changed. What hasn't is his affection for the race — where he also earned the pole in 2009 — and his hope that this weekend will be the start of big things to come.
"I think St. Pete '08 was a long time ago, no doubt about that," Rahal said. "St. Pete has been a good place for me. I'm going to hope that we kick it off correctly. Got my first win there, my first pole there. I think it would be a great way to start this year, by us having a very competitive showing there.
"I think we have to have a breakout season. I think we have to win races. We've got to be right up there with the (other Ganassi) cars and the Penske cars all year. If we're not, I think I'd be very disappointed but also pretty surprised."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.