By Jeff Olson
Little more than a year ago, Graham Rahal crashed badly while preparing for his first oval race. On Saturday, he completed a dramatic turnaround on ovals by winning the pole position at Kansas Speedway.
Rahal, a 20-year-old in his third full season in top-level open-wheel racing, shocked Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves by dropping each a notch with a four-lap average of 211.311 mph in the No. 02 Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing Dallara-Honda. It was Rahal’s second pole in three IndyCar Series races this season, but -- more important to Rahal -- his first pole on an oval.
“Qualifying pace has always been our issue on ovals,” Rahal said. “To be honest, I think a lot of people thought it would be an issue again here for us. Certainly it hasn’t been.”
Franchitti was P1 after a four-lap average of 210.967 mph in the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara-Honda. Castroneves made a run at Franchitti, topping him briefly after the first lap before settling for P2 at the time with a four-lap average of 210.857 mph in the No. 3 Team Penske Dallara-Honda.
After the qualifying session, however, Franchitti and Castroneves were penalized for dropping below the white line. Instead of starting second and third, respectively, they will start 21st and 22nd in Sunday’s RoadRunner Turbo Indy 300.
The decision by IndyCar chief steward Brian Barnhart gave Newman/Haas/Lanigan the front row -- Rahal’s teammate, Robert Doorbos’ had been fourth fastest before the penalties -- and moved Danica Patrick up two positions to third. Scott Dixon will start fourth, followed by Marco Andretti, Mario Moraes, Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan.
“I touched the white line, and the seam pulled me down there,” Franchitti said. “There wasn’t any intention of doing it, and I immediately pulled back up. If I was doing it to take advantage, I would have stayed down there. That’s my side of things. I think Brian made the right call. He doesn’t know. He’s not driving the car. It’s not about intent; it’s about what happened. I was below the white line and Helio was below the white line.”
Before the penalties, though, Rahal had incentive and confidence for a run at the pole. Encouraged by an impressive qualifying run by Doornbos, Rahal, the last driver on the track, put together a four-lap run strong enough to top Franchitti.
“When I was told what Robert did time-wise in qualifying, I really did think we could go faster than that,” Rahal said. “We were good on our own in practice.”
Doornbos, racing at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway tri-oval for the first time, said he will try to follow Rahal in the early stages of the race.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing if we’re not helping each other because then I’ll be sitting in an office in Chicago explaining myself,” Doornbos said. “It’s a team effort that we’re here.”
Patrick will follow her fourth-place finish last weekend at Long Beach with a second-row starting position. “The car was maybe the most loose it’s ever been on an oval,” Patrick said. “It was a handful, but we ended up finding a pretty good speed.”
Dixon, the defending series champion who dropped to 17th in the standings after the first two races of 2009, says he’s trying to make up lost ground. “It’s been frustrating what we’ve had these last two races,” Dixon said. “Before you know it, you’ve let too many points go. We’re going to try to make the most of it.”
When the dust had settled, though, the new kid had conquered ovals. Last year, Rahal crashed before the season opener in Homestead, costing him the race when his crew wasn’t able to resuscitate the car. His best oval start last year was second at The Milwaukee Mile; his best oval finish 10th at Iowa.
Now he’s starting first on an oval in which he gained eight positions from start to finish last year.
“There‘s still a long way to go,” Rahal said. “But for us to get our first (oval) pole here, I hope it’s a sign of things to come.”
Pos Driver Team Speed
1. Graham Rahal Newman/Haas/Lanigan 211.311
2. Robert Doornbos Newman/Haas/Lanigan 210.665
3. Danica Patrick Andretti Green 210.470
4. Scott Dixon Ganassi 210.368
5. Marco Andretti Andretti Green 210.220
6. Mario Moraes KV 210.197
7. Ryan Briscoe Penske 210.098
8. Tony Kanaan Andretti Green 210.082
9. Dan Wheldon Panther 209.144
10. Ed Carpenter Vision 208.956
11. Sarah Fisher Fisher 208.543
12. Milka Duno Dreyer & Reinbold 208.537
13. Hideki Mutoh Andretti Green 208.506
14. Vitor Meira Foyt 208.461
15. Raphael Matos Luczo Dragon 208.382
16. Mike Conway Dreyer & Reinbold 208.145
17. Justin Wilson Coyne 207.971
18. EJ Viso HVM 206.779
19. Stanton Barrett 3G 205.820
20. Ryan Hunter-Reay Vision 205.673
21* Dario Franchitti Ganassi 210.967
22* Helio Castroneves Penske 210.857
* Times disallowed for dipping below white line