Rahal's return a win-win for all

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Graham Rahal probably isn't going to win this weekend's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). But by teaming with Sarah Fisher Racing for the next two Izod IndyCar Series races, he has created a win-win situation for just about everyone.

Rahal, 21, established a record as the youngest winner of an Indy car race when he took the checkered flag at the 2008 HGPSP -- in his first IRL IndyCar Series start, no less. He came back to St. Petersburg last year and qualified his Newman/Haas /Lanigan Racing Dallara-Honda in pole position. Yet he started 2010 on the sidelines when NHLR was unable to raise enough sponsorship to run his car.

That issue appears to have been resolved in time for Rahal to return to Carl Haas' team for the balance of the season beginning at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 18. And by jump-starting his season with the growing, enthusiastic SFR team, he can bank some championship points while giving Fisher's team a competitive showing on a road course.

The IndyCar Series gets a compelling, all-American storyline and can breathe a sigh of relief that its long-term star is back on track. Rahal was 10th fastest in Friday practice on the 2.3-mile St. Petersburg street course, but less than three-tenths of a second out of second place in the tightly packed order.

"I really enjoy this event, and in fact I think I'm more excited than ever," Rahal said. "The one race, other than the [Indianapolis] 500 that I don't want to miss every year, is St. Pete. So when the opportunity came from Sarah and Dollar General, I just had to jump right at it. I think a lot of people are pretty optimistic. I feel like we should have a pretty good run here and at Barber [Motorsports Park, April 11], and I'm feeling pretty good about it.

"We've still got a bit of work to do to make the car more secure for me and to find some speed for the rest of the weekend, but I feel like we're headed in the right general direction," he added. "Now we've just got to hone in on what's going to make the car better and faster and keep the tires alive at the same time. We had one really good run on old tires and we went pretty darn quick, so that was good, but there's still a lot of work to be done."

While nine drivers were clustered within 0.3 seconds on Friday, one driver enjoyed a massive 0.7-second advantage over everyone in the field. Will Power demonstrated that he is going to be the favorite in 2010 for the road-racing events that now make up more than half of the IndyCar Series schedule.

Power was timed at 1 minute, 2.320 seconds in the Friday afternoon session. Scott Dixon was second at 1:03.0299.

"I think qualifying is very important at this race, because at this track it is easy to get tangled up [in] someone else's accident," Power stated. "The Verizon Team Penske car should be strong going into this event."

Justin Wilson was third fastest for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, heading Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay as the resurgent Andretti Autosport team put three of its four cars in the top eight.

The outsider was Danica Patrick, who was 21st in the 24-car field.

"I have to say that I'm pretty frustrated with my overall times today, but at the same time I'm only eight-tenths of a second off P2," Patrick said.

For the second race in a row, defending IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti had a poor opening day of practice. The Scotsman crashed his Target Chip Ganassi Racing car halfway through the afternoon session and wound up 17th on the speed chart.

One unpredictable factor could shake things up on Sunday afternoon: Rain showers are forecast. Changing track conditions contributed to Rahal's debut victory at St. Petersburg in 2008. Will history repeat itself?

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.