RLL appeared to be struggling in practice, Rahal in particular looking abysmally slow on Friday afternoon, almost 2mph off the next slowest car. Then in qualifying, he was only 21st of the 22 cars on the first lap (which decided the grid for Race 1), and then he and teammate Takuma Sato were only 19th and 20th on the second lap (qualifying for Race 2).
In Race 1, Sato and Rahal would finish 10th and 12th, one and two laps down on the winner respectively, although Sato led 49 laps through strategy. However, lessons learned from the day before were applied on Saturday, and both cars finished second practice in the Top 10. Sato then had to make an extra stop to counteract vicious oversteer, but Rahal rose from 19th on the grid to finish third, beating other lowly starters Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske-Chevrolet and Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda. He also finished less than one second behind runner-up Will Power.
“I think we actually had the best car on track tonight,” he told NBCSN immediately afterward. “We passed a ton of cars. It was just hard at the end when Will was driving on the same line as me. It was difficult up high to get the grip to go by…
“It was a great run right there and just a good rebound for our team after starting in the back. I’m super excited with P3, and we’re moving up in the championship [sixth]. The entire team worked awfully hard.”
The 31-year-old, now in his eighth season with the team co-owned by his legendary father Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Mike Lanigan, has suffered misfortunes since he last went to victory lane, conquering the double-header at Belle Isle, Detroit in 2017. Teammate Sato has scored three wins in the intervening period, but two of them were strategic/lucky rather than showing outright pace. The other, at Barber Motorsports Park last year, was a dominant performance from pole position, and there Rahal joined his teammate on the front row but suffered mechanical failure.
This season Rahal has been strong in four of the six races held so far and has had a noticeable edge over Sato.
“I feel like we've made some great gains,” said Rahal. “I think a lot of people over the last couple years knocked our team quite a lot. Our guys kept their heads down.
“We're a contender. This [event] would be the first one you'd say, ‘Hey, they're not in the ballpark’, but then I think we rebounded pretty well.”
Regarding the next two races – his home track at Mid-Ohio on Aug. 9 and the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23 – Rahal said he’s very positive.
“I think we ought to be very, very good at Mid-Ohio based on what I saw at Indy GP and based on what I saw at Road America,” he commented. “I feel good about it. I'm excited to go home.
“I'm super confident going to Indy. I feel that we ought to be very, very good there. My engineer, Allen [McDonald], is somewhat of an Indy specialist. He's kind of known for that.
“So I feel very good about what we should get going there. I think Indy should be a place that we are amongst the strongest. I'm excited for that.”