CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It's a big year for Graham Rahal, who for the first time in his career will be the top driver on his team.
As the IndyCar driver embarks on his first season with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal is also looking to fill his schedule with at least one NASCAR race. Rahal wants to run the inaugural Nationwide Series race at hometown track Mid-Ohio and has been actively searching for a ride.
"I want to do it really bad," he said this week. "I'd like to do more, actually, just because I think it would be fun. But Mid-Ohio is the one I'm really trying to make happen and trying to find an opportunity."
The road course in Lexington, Ohio, is roughly an hour away from Rahal's hometown of Columbus and the race falls on an open date in the IndyCar schedule. It makes Mid-Ohio a natural fit for the potential NASCAR debut for the 24-year-old Rahal, who stressed he is not trying to change series. He's just exploring.
"Finding a way to do Mid-Ohio is the priority right now, but I'd love to do an oval at some point," Rahal said. "I was watching the race at Las Vegas this weekend and was thinking someday I'd like to try it — not because I want a career change, but because one-offs would be fun. Our schedule certainly has the time."
For now, though, the focus is on his new ride with RLL.
He joins the team co-owned by his father, Bobby, after two seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing. Although the Ganassi organization says it runs its teams equally, the perception is that the emphasis is on championship contenders Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon while Rahal and Charlie Kimball were something of a "B'' team.
Leaving Ganassi and moving to RLL, which is expanding this year to two cars with the addition of James Jakes, gives Rahal a chance to shine.
"This is a real welcome change for me. Racing is fun again, and the environment I'm in now engages it," he said. "There is a different mentality here. I don't have even one concern about the team. Dad loves this, he loves racing. It's not an opportunity to make money. It's a chance to do something he loves.
"Whatever our team needs, he's gonna go get it and give us everything we need. If I could win with my Dad, it would mean a ton."
FAST START: Aric Almirola knows his Richard Petty Motorsports team doesn't have the deep pockets needed to compete with the top teams in NASCAR.
The organization stretches its resources and makes up for what it lacks with quality people. The result has been a fast start to the season that has Almirola ranked 10th in the Sprint Cup standings headed into Sunday's race at Bristol. Almirola believes that's right where the team should be ranked.
"I feel like it would be crazy for us to think that as new as we are, and the reality is we don't have the same amount of resources as some of the other teams, it would be crazy for us to think that we're a championship team at this moment," he said. "But I do feel like we're on the cusp of being a consistent top-10 team."
This solid start to 2013 is no fluke, either.
Almirola had a strong close to last year, finishing fourth at Martinsville to begin a final month without a finish lower than 16th. He opened this year with a 13th in the Daytona 500, was 15th at Phoenix and 16th last week at Las Vegas.
It's all a credit to RPM's personnel, he said.
"We do have less resources," he said. "The only way to overcome that is to have great people, and that's what I feel like we have. We've got a great group of people here at Richard Petty Motorsports. We've got a lot of people that work really, really hard and work extremely long hours to make sure that our cars have every detail and every I and every T is crossed."
NHRA GATORNATIONALS: It is the traditional East Coast opener for NHRA and Tony Schumacher and Ron Capps have the early season momentum in Top Fuel and Funny Car, respectively.
Tony Schumacher has advanced to the last four Top Fuel final rounds dating back to last season, and his win two weeks ago in Phoenix was the 70th of his career. Clearly on a roll, he's got a 79-point lead in the standings and seems to be an early championship contender.
Schumacher said his U.S. Army team is stronger than it was at the end of last season.
"Our car was phenomenal, but it's better now. It's better this year," he said. "I'm excited, man. We've got a great car, a great team. I'm looking forward to 22 more fantastic races starting at Gainesville, one of my favorite places, ever, to race."
Ron Capps, meanwhile, has posted back-to-back final rounds to open the season in Funny Car. His win at Phoenix gave him a 45-point lead in the standings and he's looking to extend that margin with perhaps a third career Gatornationals victory.
"Gainesville is one of the big four races that NHRA has," he said. "It was a huge race when I was growing up and it still is. You get pumped up when you're driving to the track and see all those campers. It's a destination race where a lot of fans attend as part of a vacation."
He may be challenged by Courtney Force, who sits second in the standings and won the season opener at Pomona. She lost to Capps in the first round of last year's Gatornationals.
"I feel that our Traxxas Ford Mustang team has come a long way from when we were racing in Gainesville just a year ago," Force said. "When I was competing at the race track last year, it had only been my third race as a rookie driver. This track was new and unfamiliar to me, and I struggled. I hope that I can take everything I learned from throughout last season and really improve with my performance going into Gainesville."