LEXINGTON, Ohio — When Graham Rahal drives into the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, all he can think of is family.

His grandfather, Mike, raced here in the 1960s, his father , Bobby, the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner, raced here in the late 1970s.

"My favorite memory is when I won the 2005 Sports Car Club of America National Championship in the Formula Atlantic Series here exactly 30 years from the time dad won that same series championship here," said Graham Rahal, who now drives for Chip Ganassi Racing. "This is a great place for me. A special place."

On Friday, Rahal, 22, demonstrated just how comfortable he is here, when he ran the fastest practice lap of the day on the last lap, stopping the clock at 116.788 mph, despite a slippery track.

"Qualifying Saturday [for Sunday's Honda Indy 200] will be important, because passing cars can be hard here," Rahal said. "You want to start in the top 6, because it makes your job a lot easier. It feels good to start the weekend off this way, for sure. I think we showed the grip is low, but at the end of the day, it felt pretty good. We're definitely sliding around a lot, but I felt like I had a pretty strong car. "

Series points leader Dario Franchitti had the third-fastest run in 116.636 mph, and Will Power was fourth (116.592). EJ Viso of KV Racing was second-fastest (116.706).

"The track wasn't in great shape, and we spent the majority of the session struggling to get grip in the car," Franchitti said.

An hour before the practice run, Rahal was relaxing in his team's transporter, talking about his father and the winding road his career has taken.

"When you grow up following your dad's footsteps, whether you're a son or a daughter, there are always pointers," he said. "Dads in every walk of life are like Little League dads. With my dad, there are a lot of things I can pull from. Sometimes I think I'm in a position no one has ever been in before, and Dad will say, 'I was in that same spot' and what's remarkable is he remembers it and what he did about it. Sometimes I can hardly remember last year."

The last year Rahal had is one most drivers would like to forget.

Unable to find a full time ride, Rahal endured the kind of season that can end a career. He bounced from the Newman/Haas/Lanigan team, where he had been for the previous two seasons, to Sarah Fisher Racing, to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, to Rahal Letterman and back to Sarah Fisher.

But Rahal took it all in stride.

"The most important thing my dad has told me is, 'Have fun.' " he said. "I tell people that and they don't believe it. They say there must be more. But I'm very fortunate to be here in a job I love. Whether you're fortunate enough to drive a race car or work a 40 hour work week, my dad would say, 'Don't follow my footsteps if you're not having fun, if you're not passionate about it.'"

Rahal — who in 2008 became the youngest winner in major auto racing history when he won his first IZOD IndyCar race at age 19 — has bounced back this year.

In January, driving for Ganassi, Rahal was part of the team that won the 24 Hours of Daytona, and then he found a comfortable seat in Ganassi's No. 38 Service Central Dallara-Honda for this IndyCar season.

"I wouldn't wish it on anybody," Rahal said of last year. "But it was a good reminder of how fortunate you are. It was a tough time, but I always loved racing. And one day I stumbled into NTB [National Tire and Battery] and Service Central. They were looking for something new, and I think that's what I bring to this team — a younger perspective. And I try to bring a fresh outlook every weekend."

NOTE: Danica Patrick said she doesn't know where the reports of her moving full-time to NASCAR are coming from. "There really is nothing to report," she said Friday. "These things come out, and I'm as surprised as others." Asked if there is still a chance she will return to the IndyCar Series next year, she said, "I can't tell you if I'm driving in one series or the other series or both or even if I'm going go-kart racing. I don't know. I just drive the car."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com.