Graham Rahal was honored this week with the IndyCar Series' Rising Star Award. He arguably was "Best in Class" as well.
The 20-year-old son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal finished just eight points out of fifth place in the standings, with the top four spots occupied by drivers on the super teams owned by Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske. Rahal didn't win a race this year as he did in 2008, but he makes the case that his team was "next best" even though it finished eight points behind Danica Patrick and one point behind Marco Andretti.
"If I hadn't made the dumb mistakes that I did, like at Toronto when I hit Ed (Carpenter), we'd have been fifth in the championship even with finishing 11th in the last race," Rahal said Thursday. "There was 20 points I left on the table at Toronto because I finished damn near last. Then you look at Mid-Ohio: If I finish fourth, where I was running, instead of eighth when I went off (track), that's eight (more) points."
Of course, Patrick and Andretti had events where they gave away points, too. Andretti crashed with Mario Moraes on the first lap of the Indianapolis 500.
But as Rahal noted, Patrick's continued strength is her consistency. It was her best season in that regard, which is why she finished a career-best fifth.
"(Consistency) allows them to do well (in the standings), and that's what I'm trying to figure out, how to make that happen," Rahal said.
Rahal expects it to occur next season with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, his team of the past three seasons (Champ Car and IndyCar). He hasn't signed a new contract but expects to soon.
"That's the plan, because I really enjoy this team," he said. "In some respects, this has become my team. I've been there three years, and I've kind of grown up with it."
Rahal's goal for next year is to fare better at Indy. He has crashed in Turn Four in each of his two 500s, both early in the race. He said he learned patience after finally adhering to the team's cry for it this season in Milwaukee, a race in which he qualified second, dropped back some after the green flag and steadily moved up to finish fourth.
"It's hard to tell somebody, 'Don't worry about losing spots, you might lose touch with these guys, but they'll come back to you,' " he said of the crew's message. "It's like, 'No, that's not how this works.'
"Well, Milwaukee was the perfect case. We had a fast car, and I was extremely conservative. I was catching (eventual winner Scott Dixon). Ten more laps and I'm there."
That lesson will carry him to next season, when he hopes to contend for a championship. Rahal's optimism includes a strong and growing bond with engineer Martin Pare, who worked with Patrick in 2008.
"Last year there were a lot of places where if we qualified 18th, we were happy. This year, we qualified outside the top 10 only once," Rahal said. "As a team, we did a hell of a good job developing the car over the winter, so the comparison between last year and this year is not close.
"This year we were far, far, far better, and as the years go on, I would expect that to be the case."