Following a runner-up finish to kick off the year, many thought the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series could be another winning season for Graham Rahal.
And based off recent years, it was looking promising. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver has won races in the last three seasons, conforming to winning ways in the series after a winless drought that lasted nearly seven years from 2008 to 2015.
But reality hit the veteran quick. Competitive, championship-contending speed has taken the back seat in 2018, as Rahal sits eighth in points with only the St. Petersburg season-opening podium in his pocket.
With three events remaining in the series, Rahal realizes where the team stands.
"From a chassis perspective, we haven't been great this year. There is no secret," Rahal told Kickin' The Tires at Pocono Raceway. "We haven't been great. Yeah, we finished second at St. Pete but we weren't great at St. Pete. We were average.
"We've been average everywhere. We've had more top 10s than anybody but [Scott] Dixon but we can't seem to take that next step."
Indeed, consistency is where Rahal has shined this season, grabbing 11 top 10s in 14 races. Along the way, the 29-year-old picked up three top fives, 29 laps led and just one DNF in the first season for the new IndyCar aero kit.
However, this isn't enough to make Rahal content. In fact, like most racecar drivers, he never excepts contentment if there's ever improvements to be made.
"It's a good year. Is it great? No," he said. "I'm used to winning. I couldn't say that four years ago but the last few years we've been used to winning a couple races a year. To not do that is disappointing so far.
"I definitely handle adversity decently well. But I expect to win so it's tough. When you don't win and you see guys like [Josef] Newgarden, [Simon] Pagenuad, guys I respect a lot but guys I know I can beat, it's hard. You want to be out there winning."
So, what changed for Rahal from his winning ways to now? Many would point to the aero kit that has affected the racing in 2018, especially the face of oval racing thus far.
However, one thing has stood out to Rahal that may have impacted performance: A second car. RLLR added IndyCar veteran Takuma Sato to the organization for 2018, giving the team a second full-time car for the first time since 2013.
"I think that has hurt us," he said. "Not as a team but it changed the flow we're used to. That definitely has an effect that took us a while to adjust to."
Sato's presence on the team, however, has brought positives to Rahal despite the dip in performance. The Japanese driver won the Indy 500 in 2017 for Andretti Autosport and captured podium at Iowa Speedway in June.
"He brings a lot of experience, expertise. A lot of speed," he said. "He brings a lot to the program. I hope that continues forward and that we can keep this program as is.
"I hope we can find something at the end of this year. But when we look down on the areas we need to improve, there's not a lot of time to get it done now. We need the offseason to get prepared."
When Rahal isn't focused on getting the team's ducks in a row on track, he is focused on keeping IndyCar on its upward trajectory toward 2019. With only three races left in the season's championship, the sport has a tightened title battle between Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi as well as a return visit to Portland International Raceway.
But more than anything, Rahal has confidence is IndyCar's honesty.
"I believe in IndyCar," he said. "I believe in the people we have and I believe in what is said. I go to a lot of other races… I see stuff that comes out, announced sell-outs that aren't sell-outs. But with IndyCar, the facts are the facts.
"There is growth, the crowds have been good, the sponsors are coming to the sport. It's not easy but we have an easier job finding sponsors today than we did three years ago. I guarantee you no other motorsport is going to tell you that. We can see that as facts. You can see it."
With a new NBC/NBCSN TV deal set in 2019, Rahal is pumped — and never afraid to have his voice heard in and out of the paddock.
"They hear from me more than they want to hear from me, probably," he said. "I always throw stuff at them when something comes up. I try my best.
"But we have to find the right venues, get another engine manufacturer in here. If we can get another OEM, it would immediately take it to the next level. Going to NBC Sports next year, eight races on NBC, that's huge for us. That is massive. There is no doubt that will change the face of our sport."
Rahal does more than just talk, he walks the walk in spreading IndyCar. Last week, Rahal teamed with wife and NHRA racer Courtney Force to promote the upcoming weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park, where IndyCar will race their Bommarito Automotive Group 500 Saturday night.
"There is a lot of time on the road and the only time we did it before was at Sonoma when we were first dating, so five years ago," he said. "The Gateway guys always do a great job and adding Courtney to it always adds a lot. She's a special personality, obviously, a beautiful girl who has won a lot. She adds a great element to everything we do."
Spending time with Force is particularly special, as the two are often separated by 100s of miles during race weekends. She competes for John Force Racing in NHRA while Rahal has his IndyCar races.
How do they stay in touch?
"I would say a lot of it is right here [pulls out phone]," he said. "Right now as we're talking she's about to run as we speak in Brainerd. Typically, I spent a lot of time the best I can right here. This is me, I try to catch her as frequently as I can and see how she's doing.
"It requires a lot of effort. This is not a normal, smooth relationship. It's life, we've gotten used to it over the last couple years."
Spending more time than ever at an NHRA drag strip, Rahal has noticed key differences between the IndyCar and drag racing.
"NHRA and IndyCar are apples and oranges to the maximum extent," he said. "One's a sprint, one's a marathon. One's about being super refined, in NHRA, you have to be refined but you'll see guys using rubber mallets. We don't even have those in our toolboxes here.
"They are very different. But equally challenging in different ways. The engineering aspect of both is important, the driving aspect is important. It is interesting as an insider, there is very little you can compare other than it's a team and we drive racecars."
Despite the close eye, Rahal doesn't foresee an NHRA race in his near future.
"I'm just not a straight liner," he said. "It's not my — I just didn't grow up around it. I enjoy it, I love watching her, it's just not my thing. I'll certainly stick with what I do."