Rahal wins in Ohio, pulls within 9 points of Montoya
LEXINGTON, Ohio (AP) Racing in his home state - and only a few laps from tightening the IndyCar standings with a big victory - Graham Rahal still had one more big restart to sweat out.
On lap 84 of 90, he and Justin Wilson battled for position, with Rahal eventually staying in front.
''If you ever want to race against anybody in that situation, it's Justin Wilson, who is by far the most fair guy out here,'' Rahal said. ''I was nervous on that last restart because we didn't have push-to-pass and he did. Obviously he got fully around me pretty much, but still gave me room and I just slid down underneath him there and took off.
''I knew if I got out front, I felt very confident that nobody could catch me.''
Rahal had an easy time from there, winning Sunday's race at Mid-Ohio and pulling to within nine points of series leader Juan Pablo Montoya. There are two events remaining in the season, and Montoya's lead has shrunk thanks to back-to-back finishes outside the top 10.
Wilson finished second, 3.4 seconds behind. Simon Pagenaud was third, followed by pole winner Scott Dixon. Montoya, who came into the race with a 42-point lead over Rahal, finished 11th.
''I mean, 42 points, I'm not going to lie to you, it sounded like a lot,'' Rahal said. ''I really thought it was a lot. So this was a nice surprise here.''
Rahal is a native of New Albany, which is about 45 miles south of the Mid-Ohio course. This was the third IndyCar win of his career and second of the season. He had an Ohio State football-themed helmet designed to honor the reigning college football champion, and he's making quite a push to win a title of his own in his No. 15 Honda.
Montoya, meanwhile, has come back to the pack. This year's Indianapolis 500 winner had finished out of the top 10 only once all season until a last-place showing at Iowa on July 18. He was out of the top 10 again Sunday, and the championship appears to be very much up for grabs.
''We did everything we were supposed to do today and the race was playing out perfectly for us,'' Montoya said. ''Unfortunately we got a caution with about 25 laps to go that we didn't need. It worked out for some and didn't work out for others.''
Montoya was leading when a caution came out on lap 66 because of a spin by Sage Karam. That happened right as Rahal was making a pit stop. The leaders made pit stops on lap 67, and when the race went green again three laps later, Rahal had a lead he wouldn't relinquish.
That was an unusual twist, considering Rahal had accused Karam of blocking him in qualifying the previous day, leading to a brief back-and-forth on Twitter between those two.
''When it's your day sometimes it's your day. We put ourselves in the right places, we made the right strategy calls,'' Rahal said. ''Lady Luck or my buddy Sage, whatever way you want to look at it, it worked perfect.''
Rahal had opened up a lead of more than three seconds before contact between Charlie Kimball and Rodolfo Gonzalez led to the final caution of the day. On the restart, Wilson nearly took over the lead, but he said he was being careful not to be overly aggressive against his fellow Honda driver.
''In the back of my mind, Graham is going for the championship. He's the lead Honda guy,'' Wilson said. ''That's definitely playing in your mind. You're on the outside trying to make an outside pass. It's like, `OK, I got to make sure I got this.'''
Pagenaud, who drives for Team Penske along with Montoya, was at the same news conference with Wilson after the race.
''You could have tried a bit harder,'' Pagenaud joked.
The final two races of the season are at Pocono on Aug. 23 and Sonoma on Aug. 30, with the latter worth double points. With Montoya leading comfortably coming into this race, contenders like Rahal, Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Will Power were under pressure to gain ground Sunday.
It was a missed opportunity for everyone but Rahal. Dixon did move a bit closer to the top, but he had won five times at Mid-Ohio, so his fourth-place showing was a bit of a letdown.
''It's tough when everyone has the same pace and everyone is on the same tire,'' Dixon said. ''With the new aero kits there's just such a big wake behind the cars and it sometimes makes it tough to get around people.''
Power, the defending series champion, finished 14th, one spot ahead of Castroneves.