CHAMPCAR/CART: Action to hit the streets of Long Beach

The Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford is ready to begin its season this Sunday on the famous streets of Long Beach, CA. This year's season promises to once again feature some intense on-track rivalries, emergence of...

The Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford is ready to begin its season this Sunday on the famous streets of Long Beach, CA. This year's season promises to once again feature some intense on-track rivalries, emergence of new stars and competition at its finest.

Sebastien Bourdais leads the charge. The Newman/Haas Racing driver has won the last two series championships and took his first win at Long Beach last year. He has a winning percentage better than one out of three (16 for 45) and has also scored podiums in over half his races (24 so far). He's attempting to become the first driver since Ted Horn back in the USAC days to win three consecutive series championships. The two most recent back-to- back champs besides Bourdais, Alex Zanardi and Gil de Ferran, did not return to the series the following year.

There's no reason to believe he isn't the favorite, but he would say otherwise. "I think everybody at Newman/Haas Racing really realized that it was not going to be easy to stay at the top, " Bourdais said in a conference call. "So that's going to be our main, I think, focus is to try and solidify what we've got, and in the meantime hope that basically what we've got is good enough to give a run for these guys and also to stay at the very front."

His teammate will once again be Bruno Junqueira. The revitalized Brazilian sat on the sidelines for most of 2005 following a devastating accident in the Indianapolis 500. The eternally snake bit Junqueira has finished runner-up in the championship standings three different times (2002-'04). But he is consistent with eight podium finishes, including three victories, in his last eight starts.

Paul Tracy has been Bourdais' biggest rival so far. The two exchanged some verbal assaults as a result of several on-track confrontations last year. This off season Tracy has moonlighted in several NASCAR Busch Series and Grand-American Rolex Series events, but this hasn't affected PT's primary focus. "I think my championship aspirations are the same as they've been every year," Tracy commented. "Our goal is to win races. We have the ability, we have the speed; we just need to cut out the mistakes and some of the bad luck, and this year we're going to be a factor." Tracy is also the most successful driver at Long Beach, with four prior victories. Tracy's teammate Mario Dominguez is back for a second season following a season with both high and low points in 2005.

The RuSPORT team has made strides during the off season and hope to make their own championship charge. Justin Wilson rotated CDW, Intel and SanDisk as primary sponsors last season but this year CDW has taken on full- time sponsorship on his #9 car. Despite the changes, Wilson emerged as a breakout star last season with wins at Toronto and Mexico City, finishing third in points. A.J. Allmendinger has been close to his elusive first victory for two seasons, just missing out at Edmonton last year. Rumors swirl about his future as it ties into personal sponsor Red Bull and their new NASCAR team for 2007, so this is a critical year for the former Atlantic and Barber Dodge champion.

The PKV team has three cars at Long Beach. Oriol Servia took over Junqueira's #2 car following the Indianapolis accident and also emerged from Champ Car's doldrums. Years spent with midfield teams finally paid off in a first class ride, and Servia went on to score his first win at Montreal and seven podium finishes, winding up the year second in points. He moves to PKV to replace Jimmy Vasser in a full-time ride. Vasser will race at Long Beach and selected events in the #12, and team co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven said he "may end up making more comebacks than Cher."

The team's second full-time driver hopes to put give the series a needed "leg up". The comparisons are inevitable between IndyCar's Danica Patrick and Champ Car's Katherine Legge, but the latter knows her goal for this year is to gain experience after her fantastic debut season in the Atlantic championship last year. Legge has clearly stated she doesn't want to be the next Danica but rather give Bourdais a run for his money.

Team Australia Racing enjoyed a successful transformation from Walker Racing last year, visiting the podium twice with Alex Tagliani. The Canadian was confirmed for a second season this week, joining native Aussie Will Power. Power made two starts at the end of last season in place of Marcus Marshall.

Power and Legge make up half of this year's full-time rookie class. 2005 Atlantic champion Charles Zwolsman was confirmed as one of Mi-Jack Conquest Racing's drivers. The Dutchman has been quick in pre-season tests and hopes to have a successful season. Teammate Andrew Ranger is just 19 and has only been confirmed for the first round. Based on his strong performances from last season, he should be around longer than that.

CTE Racing-HVM may have finally settled on a permanent name. The team has formerly been known as HVM, Herdez Competition and Bettenhausen Motorsports. Actor and comedian Cedric the Entertainer bought a stake in the team late last year and joins Keith Wiggins atop the pit box. The drivers are seemingly ancient 19-year-old Nelson Philippe, entering his third season and British rookie Dan Clarke.

Rocketsports Racing will only run one car at Long Beach, for Antonio Pizzonia, and plan to have a second at the next round in Houston. Dale Coyne Racing hopes to make the leap from the back of the grid with 2002 series champion Cristiano da Matta in one car and either Jan Heylen or Nicky Pastorelli in the second. Coyne is notorious for waiting till the 11th hour, or even a little bit past, to make a final decision on his drivers.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Justin Wilson , Jimmy Vasser , Bruno Junqueira , Alex Tagliani , Paul Tracy , Alex Zanardi , Oriol Servia , Mario Dominguez , Sébastien Bourdais , A.J. Allmendinger , Katherine Legge , Nelson Philippe , Marcus Marshall , Andrew Ranger , Jan Heylen , Charles Zwolsman , Will Power , Nicky Pastorelli , Daniel Clarke , Kevin Kalkhoven , Cristiano da Matta
Teams Conquest Racing