With Justin Wilson vacating Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing's No. 02 car after the 2008 season, American phenomenon Graham Rahal stepped into the cockpit for the 2009 season, shifting from the team's second car.
Historically, one N/H/L car has always been noticeably better than the other, and since Sebastien Bourdais stepped into it in 2004, the car that Rahal stepped into has been the one. Of course, it helps that Rahal was moving into a car that had a solid sponsorship deal with McDonald's from an unsponsored vehicle in 2008. Either way, Rahal was poised to improve on 2008's 17th-place finish in points.
While he failed to win a race and, for the second time in two years, crashed out of the Indianapolis 500, Rahal jumped 10 spots in points and showed marked improvements in consistency. He had two fewer DNFs and four more top five finishes in 2009 than in 2008.
Disappointing, however, was his failure to defend his 2008 race win at St. Petersburg, which had been his first IndyCar Series start. Despite winning the first pole of his major open-wheel career, Rahal finished seventh after damaging his front wing on the first lap. He duplicated both of his St. Petersburg qualifying and race placings at Kansas two races later, but managed to lead eight laps on the oval compared to none on the street course.
Indianapolis yet again yielded disappointment for the son of 1986 race winner Bobby Rahal. He qualified fourth and made it into the annual pit stop competition, but his team was eliminated in the first round. He then crashed out of the race on lap 56, in the same manner he had in 2008—up against the outside wall after exiting turn four.
The next race at Milwaukee, Rahal finished fourth for his first solid placing of the year. He finished third at Richmond three races later after disappointing runs at Texas and Iowa, but then landed 13th at Watkins Glen and failed to finish at Toronto. Watkins Glen was a particularly painful weekend, as it was the only race of the year where Rahal qualified worse than 12th.
After the trials and tribulations of the first 10 races, the N/H/L team began to step its performance up in the final seven events. Despite a DNF at Infineon, Rahal had five top-10s, including a podium at Motegi that saw him lead laps for the first time in 13 races.
Part of the jump in performance may be owed to different teammates, as Robert Doornbos vacated the second car after 12 events. Doornbos did not have the strongest relationship with Rahal or the team; of his ex-teammate, Rahal said, "We could certainly have a second driver who is more of a team player." Oriol Servia and Alex Lloyd replaced Doornbos, with the latter expected to team with Rahal in 2010.
More will be expected out of Rahal in 2010, as he has certainly shown the capability to be a solid driver. N/H/L will not dominate the IndyCar Series the way Penske and Ganassi do, or the way it did Champ Car, but Rahal is fast and has the capability to steal wins.
Rahal should have three primary goals in place for 2010: to win another race, to fall out of fewer races, and to complete the Indianapolis 500. As the undisputed lead driver in Carl Haas and Michael Lanigan's operation, he needs to drive like it all the time, instead of just in flashes. Projected teammates Lloyd and Hideki Mutoh have never won IndyCar races, although both are talented enough to handle their race cars in supporting roles for the team.
More importantly, despite Rahal's status as one of IndyCar's most marketable drivers, he needs to avoid the off-track distractions that can come with the territory and focus first and foremost on the racecar. It will never be as bad for Rahal as it is for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in NASCAR, but the distractions can have the same effect—faltering in the standings. If he handles it well, he'll challenge for the top five in points; if not, he'll plummet.
It's difficult to predict Rahal's best and worst tracks, as in two seasons of IndyCar racing the only track he has failed to finish at twice is Indy, and most of the tracks he raced well at in 2009 he crashed out at in 2008. But judging by last season, Rahal appears to be strong on the ovals, a surprise for a former Champ Car driver. All of his top five finishes took place on the oval tracks.
Rahal has, as has been mentioned time and again, crashed out of both of his Indianapolis 500s, but has also never finished a race at Toronto in either series.