Years from now, Champ Car World Series fans are going to look at the box score of today’s Grand Prix of Denver Sponsored by Bridgestone, see A.J. Allmendinger winning by a cavernous 20.588 seconds, and figure that the race was a ho-hum affair. They couldn’t be further from the truth.
Today’s 97-lap battle on the Denver streets featured more plot twists than a M. Night Shamalyan film, with a climax that was as unexpected as anything Hollywood’s finest film makers could come up with. But while last-lap fireworks wreaked havoc throughout the finishing order, nothing could touch the man at the front as Allmendinger hung a 20-second margin of ictory on the field to take his fourth win of the year. The Californian led a race-high 45 laps on his way to the win and aulted into second place in the championship with four races remaining on the 2006 schedule.
Allmendinger beat Bruno Junqueira to the line to score the win, with Junqueira and CTE Racing–HVM rookie Dan Clarke taking the second and third spots on the podium respectively. Junqueira and Clarke appeared content to settle for top-five finishes but were promoted to the podium when Paul Tracy and points leader Sebastien Bourdais crashed in the final turn of the final lap as Bourdais tried to pass Tracy for second place. The incident dropped Tracy to sixth and Bourdais to seventh, allowing Allmendinger to slice 12 key points off of Bourdais’ series lead, which stands at 32 of 10 events.
The day started much as it ended, with Tracy and San Jose foe Alex Tagliani tangling in Turn One. Tagliani, starting fifth, came up the inside of Turn One and clipped Tracy’s rear wheel, ending Tagliani’s day with suspension failure and dropping Tracy from fourth to 15th. Bourdais held the lead over Allmendinger and Wilson but all eyes were on the rampaging Tracy, who needed just 10 green-flag laps to climb from 15th to sixth.
Bourdais led the first 20 laps of the day before handing the reins to Junqueira, who was the only driver in the field to run a full stint on his first set of tires. Junqueira paced the next 11 laps before handing things back to Bourdais on Lap 32. But after building a four-second lead on the first stint, the second showed that the winds of change were blowing. Allmendinger used three quick laps to erase Bourdais’ lead, closing on his rear wing just before the second and last caution flag flew for a much-needed track cleaning.
Allmendinger chased Bourdais around the 1.657-mile Denver street course for the next nine laps after the restart, closing in and making the pass on the inside of Turn One on Lap 48. Meanwhile, Tracy completed his charge from the back of the field, setting his sights on Bourdais after slipping by Justin Wilson for third. Tracy tried to get Bourdais for second and ran a bit wide, not only failing to complete the pass but also allowing Wilson to re-take the third spot. Allmendinger took full advantage of the wars being waged behind him to build a nine-second lead, setting the stage for the final third of the race.
The last set of pit stops cycled through from laps 59 to 65, allowing Wilson and Junqueira to briefly hold the lead before Allmendinger reclaimed the point. At that point, he held a 10-second lead over Wilson, but unbeknownst to fans at the time, RuSPORT’s Wilson was on his way out of the podium picture. Tracy started the ball rolling by passing Wilson with 25 laps to go, triggering a run that saw Wilson slip all the way back to eighth by the end of the day.
Bourdais had suffered the same fate during the second stint as Wilson did in his last one, as the red-walled alternate Bridgestone Potenzas played a key role. Designed to offer better grip than the regular Bridgestones, the alternate tires also are built to lose their optimal grip level a little quicker than the standard tires, which they did on longer stints today.
But having seen what could happen on the alternates, Bourdais bolted on the standard shoes for his last stint, and immediately set about climbing out of the fifth spot. He passed Wilson for fourth on Lap 77 and then used the three fastest laps of the race to run down Newman/Haas teammate Junqueira for the third position.
Suffering a fuel pickup problem, Tracy fought gamely to hold on to the second spot while Bourdais closed on the Canadian. Tracy held him off until the final lap, when Bourdais tried to go on the outside of Tracy in the final two turns. Tracy slid to the right in the middle of Turn Eight and clipped the Frenchman, sending both drivers into a spin and out of the race.
Junqueira and Clarke raced through the carnage to take the podium spots – the first and Clarke’s young career - while Roshfrans Rookie-of-the-Year points leader Will Power and Nelson Philippe rounded out the top five.
The series will have a week off before heading to Canada for the third and final time this year, traveling to Montreal’s fabled Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve for the Champ Car Grand Prix of Montreal August 25-27.
QUOTES FROM THE TOP THREE FINISHERS
Dan Clarke: Right at the end, came through the last turn after my engineer warned me of some contact. Sebastien and Paul were about to get into a little tussle. I was actually watching that after I went through the race. Came on the radio to my engineer, and said, ‘Don't you dare tell me that's a podium’. We came so close two weeks ago. We came so close at Cleveland. Now that we've actually achieved it, it hasn't sunk in yet. This is going to give us all a lot of confidence to keep persevering like we did today and maybe we'll have some more podiums hopefully before the end of the season.
Bruno Junqueira: It was a quite exciting, quite fun race for me. In the end, Tracy and Sebastien get together, gave me a podium, so I'm quite pleased with that. I'm quite pleased here in Denver. I have four podiums, two wins, one second, one third. That's better than my record in Road America here (laughter). I'm quite pleased here. I led the race every single time I race here. I'm quite pleased with this track.
A.J. Allmendinger: It's still going to be difficult. We're going to four tracks that -- well, I don't think there's really any tracks that Newman/Haas really sucks at. We're going to four tracks that they're really good at (laughter). It's going to take a little bit of luck - maybe a bad race from Sebastien to really kind of get in there and put pressure on him. More than anything, I'm looking forward to going to Montréal and trying to keep the streak going, really just put pressure on him, try to get another ictory for the whole Forsythe Indeck team.
A.J. Allmendinger won his fourth race of the season today, becoming the first U.S.-born driver to win four Champ Car races in a season since 1996 when Michael Andretti (five) and Jimmy Vasser (four) each turned the trick.
Allmendinger’s 20-second margin of ictory was the largest in a Champ Car World Series race since Alex Zanardi beat Mark Blundell by more than 30 seconds at the 1997 U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway.
Today’s third-place performance by Dan Clarke, coupled with a fifth-place run by teammate Nelson Philippe, allowed CTE Racing–HVM to see both its cars finish in the top five for the first time since Mario Dominguez and Ryan Hunter-Reay completed the feat at Australia in 2004.
Rookies Dan Clarke and Will Power finished third and fourth respectively today, marking the first time that two rookies have finished in the top four since A.J. Allmendinger and Justin Wilson placed third and fourth in the 2004 Mexico City event.
Dan Clarke is the first rookie to finish on a Champ Car podium since Timo Glock placed second last season in Montreal.