- Associated Press - Thursday, March 27, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - Graham Rahal opened his IndyCar career with a win in his series debut. Six seasons later, that victory through the streets of St. Petersburg stands as his lone trip to Victory Lane.

But so much has changed for Rahal since that 2008 win, particularly during this past offseason.

He returns to St. Pete this weekend with a high-profile new sponsor in Army National Guard, a veteran engineer in Bill Pappas and big hopes for the breakthrough season that seemed set to happen years ago.

“I think we have a good opportunity this year,” Rahal said. “I feel with National Guard it helps take our team to a whole new level. Of course, with Bill Pappas, John Dick, all the guys we brought onboard, that’s going to help a lot.”

Dick was brought on as head of research and development shortly after the addition of Pappas, who spent the last two seasons as Justin Wilson’s engineer.

It was all part of an overhaul at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where team co-owner Bobby Rahal knew significant upgrades were needed if his son was going to have a fighting chance. Graham Rahal joined the organization last year, but had only one podium finish and his 18th-place finish in the final standings was his lowest since 2010.

“We made the investments in the cars and the equipment and the personnel, and it was clear we weren’t giving Graham the equipment he needed to succeed,” Bobby Rahal said.

As they head into the Verizon IndyCar Series opener Sunday at St. Pete with new sponsor National Guard, Bobby Rahal believes he’s got the tools to build a competitive team.

“Signing the Guard is obviously huge, historic, because it gives us the ability to compete at the highest level and build our company,” Bobby Rahal said. “We can give our driver the proper tools to succeed.”

That puts the pressure on Graham Rahal to perform. He moved to IndyCar in 2008 after one season in the Champ Car Series, and has just one win, 12 podium finishes and two poles to show for his seven seasons. Last year, when he was supposed to be buoyed by the move to RLL and the opportunity to work with his father for the first time, Rahal instead hit a career-low with just six laps led.

“Everybody feels a lot of pressure, I would say as a team,” he said. “Compared to last year, it wouldn’t be hard to do a better job. Obviously I’ve had chances to win. I think I finished second like 10 times or something. In my trophy room in my house, it’s all second-place trophies.

“I’ve had opportunity to win from time to time. Unfortunately it didn’t just come together. This year we need to focus on doing all those things.”

It begins with qualifying, a struggle for Rahal last year. Although he qualified on the front row at Long Beach, his average starting spot was 17th last season.

“We have to qualify better. We race very well, but when you’re qualifying 14th, 15th on some of these street courses, it’s hard to make up that gap,” he said.

He’d like to make a splash this weekend at St. Pete, where he debuts his sponsorship. He’s used the prolific partnership to his advantage, working through social media this week to attempt to put together a swap of race cars with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR’s most popular driver is also sponsored by the Guard, and Rahal is hoping the two can partner this year on marketing opportunities that benefit the Guard and both their racing series.

But first comes Sunday’s opener, where Rahal believes he’s got a shot to shine.

“Of all of our races throughout the year, I wish we had more identical to St. Pete,” he said. “Great place, great atmosphere.”