Graham Rahal, IndyCar Series Ready to Hit the Streets of St. Pete

Richard DeveauCorrespondent IApril 3, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - APRIL 3: Graham Rahal drives the #02 McDonald's Newman Haas Lanigan Racing Dallara Honda during practice for the IRL IndyCar Series Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on April 3, 2009 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

American open-wheel racing fans, teams, and drivers have long awaited the start of the 2009 IndyCar Series; it's finally here!

After a very long winter, team haulers have pulled into the paddock in St. Petersburg and cars have hit the track for Friday practice.

Graham Rahal, driving the No. 02 McDonald's car for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, was fastest in practice with a time of 1:03.4078 seconds.

Justin Wilson clocked a time of 1:03.5881 seconds to come in second, while Dario Franchitti, EJ Viso, and Tony Kanaan rounded out the top five.

"For the whole McDonald’s crew it’s been a pretty good day," said Rahal, defending winner of the St. Petersburg Grand Prix. "This morning we came out of the box and we were 10th and I think some of the guys were a little worked up, but we knew that the car was quick."

"There’s still a little bit left on the table, but overall for the McDonald’s team it's been a good day."

Rahal is ready to make his second appearance at St. Pete, where last year he got his first career victory, making him the youngest race winner in American open-wheel racing. He was 19 years and 93 days old.

Rahal's win also made him the first "transition driver" coming over from the former Champ Car World Series to win an IndyCar Series race.

The only other Champ Car driver to do this was his former teammate at N/H/L Racing, Justin Wilson, who won at Detroit later in the season.

Wilson, now driving for Dale Coyne Racing, was also optimistic about this weekend: "I think we had a pretty good day. The Sonny's Bar-B-Q car was working well and we were able to keep working on it. We were trying to get the ride quality even better to absorb some bumps out here, because that's a pretty big part of it."

"I'm very pleased with the progress," added Wilson. "I think this afternoon is not a true reflection of what we can do or of what everyone else can do because it was pretty messy out there at the end."

"With 22 cars, everyone is eager to get the season started. So there were lots of little incidents going on out there, but I think we are in good shape and hopefully we can stick it in the top six tomorrow and challenge for that pole position."

2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan, who was fifth on the practice charts, was also positive, saying "It was a good day for Team 7-Eleven. We didn't run this morning in the first session, but we have a decent car, so I am pleased and looking forward to qualifying tomorrow."

Numerous drivers are running for the "rookie of the year" award and will be making their first IndyCar Series starts this weekend, including Mike Conway, Robert Doornbos and Raphael Matos.

"This is a great circuit," said British native Conway. "It's all coming back to me now. I ran here in 2003, so I'm just getting back into the swing of it again. We improved quite a lot from the last session to this one, so we are headed in the right direction for tomorrow."

"It's nice to be on a street course; I always enjoy it," said former Champ Car driver Robert Doornbos, who missed out on IndyCar competition last year. "We are just struggling a bit with the setup. Graham tried something with his setup that was really good, so we are going to try it tomorrow."

"It's great for the team to be fast and show that the car can do it. I need to adjust my driving style a little bit for these cars as well. I'm a bit too aggressive maybe, but we will learn. Tomorrow we will be stronger."

Doornbos impressed many in his rookie season in Champ Car, scoring a victory and leading the standings at a certain point. After unification, Doornbos lost his ride, instead racing internationally in A1GP.

Doornbos is definitely a favourite to win this year's rookie title, but has never run an oval race in his career, which will be a huge learning curve for the Dutchman.

Raphael Matos had a bit of a rough day: "Today has been quite difficult. We're just starting together with very little testing and are learning everything as we go. We need to make a lot of adjustments and find some speed in the car. Hopefully we will find the sweet spot."

"I know that team will do everything they can to find it. They are working very hard and will do everything possible to make it right."

Matos has the potential to be competitive after winning the Firestone Indy Lights championship last season.

Speaking of the Firestone Indy Lights Series, young American J.R. Hildebrand took his first pole for race one of two this weekend at St. Petersburg, posting a lap of 1:07.7704 seconds.

Junior Strous, one of 16 rookies in the 27-car Indy Lights field, will start second.

The Indy Lights cars will be on track tomorrow once again for race two qualifying and their inaugural race of the season later in the afternoon. Race two is scheduled for Sunday prior to the IndyCar race.

Of course, it's the beginning of a new season, and all fantasy pool players are making their predictions. So I will make some predictions of my own:

I look into my crystal ball and I see the 2009 IndyCar finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, and a champion is being crowned. The silhouette of the car is starting to appear and I see the familiar red and white colors of the Penske Racing cars. And there he is, holding the trophy in his arms. I see Ryan Briscoe!

The Aussie had a rough start to the 2008 season, having some very good runs go bad. Luck was just not on his side and fans were beginning to wonder if Penske should keep him.

But all good stories have a turning point, and it was no different for Briscoe's season. The turning point came a week after the Indianapolis 500, with Briscoe winning at the Milwaukee Mile in Wisconsin. Briscoe's season turned right-side up as he finished the season with six consecutive top-10 finishes, including a second win at Mid-Ohio.

Briscoe then capped off 2008 with a win in his home country of Australia at the Nikon Indy 300, an exhibition race on the Streets of Surfer's Paradise course.

As for this weekend's St. Petersburg Grand Prix in Florida, I once again look into my crystal ball, and this time I see Scott Dixon celebrating on top of the podium.

The Ganassi Racing driver grabbed the championship title last year after a close points battle with Penske driver Helio Castroneves, scoring six wins, including one at Edmonton, which like St. Pete is an airport circuit. I know, only a small portion of the St. Pete circuit is an airport runway, but I pick Dixon anyway!

I hope come Sunday, all your TVs are tuned on to Versus, as they will be broadcasting their first IndyCar race this weekend. For my fellow Canadian fans, let's all hope you subscribed to TSN2, because it's the only way you will be able to watch the race live.

This should no doubt be an exciting season and I am definitely looking forward to it. So get the Lazyboy ready, hang on and strap the ol' television to the floor, 'cause it's going to be a wild ride!