Christian Lundgaard’s maiden IndyCar win shows that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing are on the right track, but also that they probably need to retool.
After having come close on a few occasions before, second-year Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Christian Lundgaard secured the first win of his IndyCar career on Sunday afternoon on the streets of Toronto, Ontario, converting his second pole position of the 2023 season into a perfect 54-point weekend behind the wheel of his No. 45 Honda.
Lundgaard’s win is the first win for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing since Takuma Sato won the 104th running of the Indy 500 back in August 2020.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing have been widely viewed as a team on the decline since that Sato victory nearly three years ago. Their slow start to the 2023 season, coupled with their Indy 500 disappointment back in May, made clear that several key changes were needed, and it appeared as though no turnaround was in sight.
But that turnaround has been somewhat expedited, and now they find themselves back on top in the NTT IndyCar Series.
It is well worth mentioning that Lundgaard’s win on Sunday wasn’t the first time Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing have shown potential in 2023, even despite all the pessimism surrounding the team in certain IndyCar circles.
Lundgaard did take his first career pole position at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course back in May, and Graham Rahal started on the front row for the first time since 2019 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, just one race prior to Sunday’s Toronto event.
The win, however, is what really shows that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing are clearly on the right track.
Don’t look now, but not only is Lundgaard up to seventh place in the championship standings, making him the highest-ranking driver among all drivers not competing for Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske, or Arrow McLaren, but he isn’t actually all that far from second.
His gap to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon in second place is considerably less than half of the gap from Dixon to points leader and teammate Alex Palou.
Given Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s recent resurgence and the fact that four of the final seven races are road and street course races, races in which they should continue to be quick, who knows where he might end up?
We also can’t neglect to mention the fact that he currently sits in third place in the road and street course standings, behind only Palou and Dixon. He is ahead of every single driver on every other team — Team Penske, Arrow McLaren, Andretti Autosport, you name it.
When you consider the stigma surrounding Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this season and combine that with the success Lundgaard has had as of late, you could make a strong case that the 21-year-old Danish driver is currently the second-best driver in the series behind Palou.
Considering it was Palou whom he passed for the win on Sunday to end the 26-year-old Spaniard’s three-race winning streak, that’s probably not as far-fetched as it seems.
But that unfortunately points to a harsh reality for another driver within the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team, and that is Jack Harvey.
Yes, Harvey has been in a number of tough situations which were out of his control, such as on Sunday during the first-lap melee in Toronto.
But he also hasn’t finished higher than 13th place this season, giving him a lower top finish than Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport’s Devlin DeFrancesco, who already knows that he won’t be back with his team in 2024.
Harvey has a single top 10 finish since being recruited to the team by Graham Rahal himself ahead of last year, and that was only a 10th place finish in a chaotic race on the streets of Nashville last August. It’s not a stretch to call his run with the team a bitter disappointment.
Given the pace of Lundgaard, who signed a multi-year contract extension before the end of last season, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing have certainly become a far more attractive option for pending free agents that they might have been a few months ago.
This is a race-winning team again. This is a team that needs to take advantage of their open seat and bring in another young driver whom they believe can join Lundgaard in bringing them back to the front to challenge the other big teams in this series on a regular basis.
Rahal, like Harvey, doesn’t have a contract that extends beyond 2023. He obviously has no interest in retiring yet, though he was said to be considering other options for 2024. However, given Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s recent jump in performance, perhaps his best move would be to stay put for another year.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s best move would be to replace Harvey behind the wheel of the No. 30 Honda after this year and see how things go in 2024 with new blood. They can use the veteran experience of Rahal behind the wheel of the No. 15 Honda as an added benefit for two young drivers instead of only one.
If the team are in a good place in 2024, perhaps Rahal decides to step aside for another new driver and focus on a future in team ownership in 2025 — or perhaps if he too can find himself winning again for the first time since 2017, he decides to keep competing.
But regardless, Lundgaard’s win is a sign that if this team wants to get the most out of their recent improvement, they would be wise to become a key player in this year’s IndyCar silly season and improve their driver lineup from top to bottom. There are plenty of good drivers out there who are going to be looking for new homes.