Graham Rahal's IndyCar victory drought is over.

Graham Rahal’s IndyCar victory drought is over.

The 26-year-old New Albany native finished at the front when it mattered most on Saturday in a wild MAVTV 500 on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval in Fontana, Calif.

Rahal had not won since 2008, a span of 125 races.

Rahal took the lead by a nose in his Honda-powered car just before a crash caused the race to be halted with five laps left. On the restart, he held onto the lead with three laps remaining, and the final lap was run under a caution flag after a spectacular crash involving Ryan Briscoe and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

“It was nuts,” Rahal said after finishing just ahead of Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti.

Rahal started 19th and climbed into the lead pack within the first 80 laps of the 250-lap race, with most of the action being run at more than 215 mph. With 80 lead changes, it set the record for the most competitive IndyCar race. The old mark of 73 was set at the track in 2001.

Rahal’s last victory, seven years ago, came on the road course in St. Petersburg, Fla., when became the youngest driver, at 19, to win a major open-wheel race. He came close several other times, even this season with back-to-back second-place finishes on a road course in Alabama and in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

“You don’t know how good this feels,” Rahal said on NBCSN after climbing from his car. “It’s been so long coming, and it’s awesome.”

He appeared destined for an in-race penalty about two-thirds of the way through the race. On a pit stop, Rahal’s fueler stuck the hose back into the car just as Rahal was pulling away. It ripped the nozzle off the hose, leading to a caution period when the nozzle fell out on the backstretch.

IndyCar officials opted not to penalize Rahal during the race.

“It will be reviewed, and there will be a penalty coming, I can assure you,” Derrick Walker, IndyCar president of operations and competition, said on NBCSN during the race. “They (stewards) just didn’t levy a penalty that affected the competition on the track.”

Rahal knew the outcome could have been worse.

“We were definitely lucky with that one,” he said.

The ensuing caution period was one of several in the last half of the race after the first 136 laps had been caution-free. Because of how aero packages on the cars were set up, it led to pack racing, which helped Rahal get back into the running.

“I know there was a lot of close wheel-to-wheel action out there, probably closer than most drivers would like,” Rahal said. “I think the fans that did show up got a show.”

Estimates by reporters on hand put the crowd at about 5,000, a forecast for temperatures in the high 90s keeping some away. But cloud cover meant the race was run in the high 80s.

But some drivers thought the action on the track was too hot for another reason, including Will Power, whose crash with Takuma Sato brought out the late red flag, and Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya.

“We shouldn’t be racing like this,” Montoya said. “This is full pack racing, and sooner or later somebody is going to get hurt. We don’t need to be doing this.”

tmay@dispatch.com

@TIM_MAYsports

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