IRL: As weekends go, Rahal stole the show

Alex Lloyd was money. Scott Sharp was off the hook. And Helio  Castroneves was, well, Castronevesque.

But clearly the most impressive performer over the first weekend of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 was America’s best hope for a superstar.

Graham Rahal.

His first coup came on Saturday, when he pulled a sixth-place qualifying run off the board and,  in a new car, qualified fourth. In other words, he out-qualified Scott Dixon, the defending race champion as well as the defending IndyCar  Series champion for Team Target.

It was the only performance that broke up the Roger Penske-Chip Ganassi stranglehold atop the scoring pylon. Those two owners had the fastest cars all week, yet it was the 20-year-old driving for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing who crashed the party. As a reminder, NHLR is an outfit that came from the road course-dominated Champ Car World Series and lacks the technical logbook of those other teams.

The second coup came on Sunday in practice, when Rahal swerved to miss John Andretti’s wreck. Not only did he avoid a potential disaster — if not a tragedy, given that he might have T-boned Andretti like Alex Zanardi — but Rahal kept the only car his team had from hitting the wall. There was some chip damage from debris and some flat tires, but that’s chump change. Rahal made a million-dollar save that would have been impressive if it had come from a more veteran driver.

Those kinds of moments show the proclivity Rahal has for this.

With two poles this season, on a street course and an oval, and clutch performances like the ones last weekend at Indy, Rahal is showing the kind of progress befitting a marquee second-generation driver. He is clearly getting better, and doing so at a rapid rate that will leave the more heralded Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick in his dust.

Anyone betting on which of the three will have the more successful careers would be wise to cast their votes for the guy driving the McDonald’s car. “Unrealized potential” and “Graham Rahal” will never be in the same sentence, except for this one.

Rahal, the son of  three-time Indy Car champion Bobby Rahal, has all the tools to be among the most engaging champions of all time. He may not move on the dance floor like Castroneves, but he does show a propensity for driving like the two-time Indy winner. Hard as it is to believe, Castroneves has never won an IndyCar championship, but he is every bit the peer of Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish and Gil de Ferran.

Although Rahal is not yet walking in that crowd, is there any doubt that he will at some point?

The only real question is when. The answer is  probably sooner than later.

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