ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. --- There's something about the temporary street circuit in downtown St. Petersburg that brings out the best in Graham Rahal.
A year ago, making his IndyCar Series debut as a 19-year-old, the second-generation driver was the surprise winner of the Honda Grand Prix, holding off two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves in a dramatic finish to become the youngest winner in a major open-wheel event.
Driving for longtime Champ Car powerhouse Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, one of the teams transitioning to the newly unified IndyCar Series in 2008, Rahal then struggled most of the season. He crashed out of seven races and wound up 17th in the points.
Friday, the first day of practice for the season-opening St. Petersburg race, it was like turning back the clock. The youngster was back on top of the speed chart, leading the way with a lap of 1 minute, 3.407 seconds.
"Obviously, I love it,'" Rahal said of the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary downtown circuit. "I've always been the type of guy that I absolutely love street racing, even opposed to regular road courses. It's been that way since I drove go-karts.
Justin Wilson was another surprise Friday as he turned the second best lap of the day at 1:03.588. Reigning champion and preseason favorite Scott Dixon was seventh overall, while fan favorite Danica Patrick, the only woman in the field, was 10th.
NHRA QUALIFYING: In Las Vegas, Funny Car racer Bob Bode claimed the qualifying lead for the first time in his nine-year career at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals.
Greg Anderson also raced to the qualifying lead in Pro Stock at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in a shortened day of qualifying after unseasonably cool weather and high winds forced officials to cancel the first session of Top Fuel qualifying and the second scheduled session for all three pro classes.