CHAMPCAR/CART: Houston: Round two preview

POINTS LEADER SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS LEADS CHAMP CAR FIELD TO INTRIGUING NEW EVENT AT HOUSTON'S RELIANT PARK INDIANAPOLIS (May 9, 2006) -- For the majority of the contenders chasing two-time Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by...


INDIANAPOLIS (May 9, 2006) -- For the majority of the contenders chasing two-time Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford champion Sebastien Bourdais (#1 McDonald's Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) the 2006 season opener at Long Beach couldn't have gone much worse.

Not only did Bourdais scald the field with a dominant performance, taking a maximum 35 points and winning by more than 14 seconds, four of the early title favorites were stacked up like lumber in Turn One and each left Southern California 30 points in arrears to the defending champ.

But the 15-race Champ Car season is more a marathon than a sprint and the rest of the field will get another shot at grounding the Flying Frenchman this weekend as the series travels to Houston, Texas for the Champ Car Grand Prix of Houston May 11-13. The event will take place on a brand-new temporary road course set up entirely within the confines of Reliant Park, which surrounds Reliant Stadium and the Houston Astrodome as well as Reliant Arena.

Throwing an added wrinkle into the event is the fact that the race will take place Saturday night with the entire track illuminated by temporary Musco lighting towers, much like the ones that cast light on Champ Car night races in Milwaukee and Cleveland in 2003 and '04. The 1.615-mile, 10-turn layout winds through the parking areas surrounding the massive sports stadiums, and includes a long sweeper that runs right alongside the fabled Astrodome where Houston sports legends such as Nolan Ryan, Earl Campbell and Elvin Hayes once played.

The race marks the return of Champ Cars to the Lone Star State as the series makes its first race appearance in Texas since leaving the streets of Houston in 2001. Champ Cars ran on a tight, downtown street course from 1998-2001, drawing an average of more than 100,000 fans for each of the four events.

So on paper, a new event would appear to put most of the field on even footing, with no driver or team having any sort of a database to work from in relation to setup and handling on the Houston course. However, running a new course may actually be detrimental to those chasing the man with the number-one decal on his car, if history is any indication.

Four times in the last three seasons, Champ Car has held a race on tracks where they had never run before and in each of those four events, Bourdais has been the man holding the winner's trophy at the end of the day. Brands Hatch in 2003, Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2004 and Edmonton and San Jose in '05 all went to Bourdais, and a fifth straight victory on a new course would give the fourth-year driver a huge advantage as he pursues a record-tying third consecutive title.

Bourdais holds an eight-point advantage on the field, with third-year driver Justin Wilson (#9 CDW Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) standing in the second spot in the points. Wilson has earned podium finishes in each of his last two races, dating back to last year's romp in the Mexico City season finale. Wilson maintains the second position over veteran Alex Tagliani (#15 Aussie Vineyards Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), who came home third in Long Beach. Tagliani is one of just six drivers in the current lineup that competed on the old Houston track, and qualified in the top-eight in his two starts before race-day troubles dropped him deep in the field.

Paul Tracy (#3 Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) is the only driver in the field that owns a Houston win, taking a dominant victory in Houston in 1999, and needs to have a reprise of that performance in 2005 after being one of the unfortunates that were caught up in the opening-lap melee in Long Beach. Tracy needs just one win to tie Al Unser Jr. for sixth on the all-time victory list, but more importantly, the Canadian needs a strong run to get back in the points hunt.

Bruno Junqueira (#2 Hole In The Wall Camps Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) has also had success on tracks that are new to the series, scoring podiums on each of the last four new circuits that he has competed on, dating back to a victory in the inaugural Grand Prix of Denver in 2002. Junqueira, will also be trying to rebound from the first-lap troubles that cropped up in Long Beach as he is currently 29 points behind his Newman/Haas Racing teammate.

But for all the drivers that left Long Beach lamenting their fates, there were an equal number that saw their outlooks brighten considerably just one race into the season. Mario Dominguez (#7 Pride of Mexico Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) was the only driver involved in the first-turn fracas that was able to continue, and made the most of his chance by rolling to a fourth-place finish. Dominguez will be making his first Champ Car visit to Texas, although he did compete on the old street course in 2000 as part of the Indy Lights series.

Cristiano da Matta (#19 Sonny's BBQ Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) didn't waste any time getting acclimated to his surroundings with Dale Coyne Racing, rolling to a top-five finish in Long Beach in his first race with his new team. The former Champ Car titlist sparked his new Dale Coyne Racing teammate to a strong debut as well as Jan Heylen (#11 Sonny's BBQ Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) placed seventh in his maiden Champ Car event. Heylen was the only driver other than Bourdais to lead laps in Long Beach and heads to Houston as the leader in the Roshfrans Rookie-of-the-Year standings.

Sophomore Andrew Ranger (#27 Mi-Jack/Tide Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) made the biggest moves in the season opener, vaulting from 16th on the grid to finish a strong sixth. The finish for the second-year driver was his best in a Champ Car since he took second at last year's Monterrey event, a finish that made him the youngest driver ever to earn a Champ Car podium spot. His teammate Charles Zwolsman (#34 Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), will carry a new sponsor into the weekend as he looks to improve on his 12th-place finish in the season opener.

Houston will mark the debut of Nicky Pastorelli (#8 Rocketsports Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) in the Champ Car World Series as the Netherlands native takes the reins in relief of Antonio Pizzonia. The former Jordan F1 test driver has a good bit of testing experience in the Champ Cars, having participated in open testing at Portland, Milwaukee and Sebring this season.

The other two preseason favorites that met with misfortune in Long Beach will be looking to turn things around as Oriol Servia (#6 Gulfstream/Bell Micro Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and A.J. Allmendinger (#10 RuSPORT Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) try to get back in the title hunt. Both drivers were victimized in the first-turn incident in the opener and failed to complete a lap and now find themselves in need of a strong finish in order to keep contact with the series leaders. Servia competed twice on the old Houston track, earning a top-10 placing in his rookie visit in 2000 while Allmendinger makes his first trip to the hometown of his namesake A.J. Foyt.

Katherine Legge (#20 Optium/Gulfstream Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) comes off a strong debut that saw her earn the best-ever finish by a female driver in Champ Car competition, placing eighth in Long Beach. Since then, Legge has tested in Portland and Milwaukee and then drove a racing powerboat in Italy as a means of preparation, and heads for Houston just three points out of the rookie points lead.

Fellow rookie Dan Clarke (#14 CTE Racing -- HVM Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) had an equally promising debut in Long Beach despite early trouble. The Brit placed 11th in his first career Champ Car start but did turn the third-fastest lap of the race midway through the event.

The Champ Car Grand Prix of Houston will get underway with first-round qualifying Thursday at 8:15 p.m. Central Time. The final grid will be set with Friday qualifying at 4:00 p.m. Central Time with the race set to take the green flag at 8 p.m. on Saturday night. Fans can watch all the highlights from Bridgestone Pole Position qualifying on a 30-minute SPEED broadcast beginning at midnight Eastern Time Sunday morning while the race will be shown live on SPEED beginning at 9 p.m. Eastern.


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Series IndyCar
Drivers Antonio Pizzonia , Justin Wilson , Bruno Junqueira , Alex Tagliani , Paul Tracy , Oriol Servia , Mario Dominguez , Al Unser Sr. , Sébastien Bourdais , A.J. Allmendinger , Katherine Legge , Andrew Ranger , Jan Heylen , Charles Zwolsman , Nicky Pastorelli , Daniel Clarke , Dale Coyne , A.J. Foyt , Cristiano da Matta
Teams Dale Coyne Racing