Needing to finish better than two-time defending Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais in today's Champ Car Grand Prix of Road America, Allmendinger benefited from timely cautions and quick work from his Forsythe Championship Racing crew and not only finished ahead of Bourdais, he topped the entire field to win his fifth race of the season.
Allmendinger overcame a pair of large deficits where he trailed Bourdais by more than 10 seconds, then used a fast fuel stop to get in position for the pass that would give him the lead. Allmendinger passed Bourdais with six laps to go, taking advantage of the fact that the champion was on cold tires after his final pit stop, taking the lead with a pass in Turn Four.
After a 40-minute red flag to clean up after Katherine Legge's hard impact in Turn 10, Allmendinger then held off Bruno Junqueira and Bourdais to score his fifth win of the year. The result shaved five points from Bourdais' championship lead and ensured that the title fight would carry to Surfers Paradise in four weeks.
Things happened early and often in today's 51-lap race, beginning with contact on the opening lap of the race. As has happened on more than a couple occasions this year, it was Junqueira who was the victim as he spun after contact with Will Power. Junqueira's car was undamaged and he was able to continue - albeit from the back of the field.
Bourdais stormed to the lead when the green flag waved on Lap Four, passing polesitter Dan Clarke and then Charles Zwolsman, who had passed Clarke for the lead on the restart. Once in front, Bourdais checked out on the field, building a 15-second lead even after the first cycle of green-flag pit stops.
That lead was erased on Lap 18 when Power went off course again in Turn One, bringing Allmendinger to Bourdais' bumper for the restart with Clarke and fellow title hopeful Justin Wilson running fourth and fifth. Wilson and Paul Tracy moved ahead of Clarke on Lap 21, setting the stage for a fierce battle at the front among the three drivers still in contention for the Vanderbilt Cup.
Undaunted, Bourdais romped away again, building a five-second lead after two laps and extending it to 12 seconds after five trips around the 4.048-mile Road America layout. But the lead vanished in a spray of gravel soon after as Champ Car debutant Juan Caceres brought the caution with a trip into the gravel trap on Lap 27. Junqueira led a trio of drivers that decided not to pit, while Wilson and Allmendinger used quick pit work to rejoin the battle ahead of Bourdais.
Two quick cautions left the order unchanged, with Wilson running third ahead of Allmendinger and Bourdais. Allmendinger moved into third with a first-turn pass of Wilson on Lap 38, one lap before Nelson Philippe pitted out of the second spot. Philippe, who had previously joined Junqueira at the front after skipping a stop, suffered a failure upon leaving the pits as his left-rear wheel became dislodged.
Philippe was able to keep his machine off the racing line as he limped back to the pits, allowing starter J.D. Wilbur to keep his yellow flag in his pocket. However, Junqueira, Wilson and Oriol Servia decided to pit ahead of what they thought would be a yellow flag for the incident, promoting Bourdais back to the lead as Allmendinger and Alex Tagliani pitted one lap later.
Bourdais stretched his fuel load three laps longer than Allmendinger, which ended up setting the stage for the winning pass, as Allmendinger had as the extra laps to warm his tires, allowing both him and Junqueira to get around Bourdais as he left the pits. But the battle was halted temporarily when Legge had her big crash, necessitating a 42-minute red flag to retrieve the car and make track repairs. Legge was uninjured in the crash, walking out of the Champ Car Medical Center to the cheers of the waiting fans.
The race was restarted with two laps to go, with Allmendinger on point, followed by Junqueira and Bourdais. Allmendinger was equal to the task however, getting a good restart and keeping the Newman/Haas drivers at bay to score his fifth win of the year. Junqueira matched a season high with a second-place run while Bourdais rounded out the podium. Servia made the only pass of the final laps, besting Wilson for fourth, while Wilson's fifth-place run kept him mathematically alive in the championship.
Polesitter Clarke finished sixth, and more importantly moved to within seven points of Power in the Roshfrans Rookie-of-the-Year standings.
The Champ Cars will resume the title fight in four weeks' time, heading to the always unpredictable street course in Surfers Paradise, Australia for the 15th running of the Lexmark Indy 300.
QUOTES FROM THE TOP THREE FINISHERS
Sebastien Bourdais #1 McDonald's Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone - "Well, I think the car was fast enough. You know, when it's your teammate in front of you, it's always complicated. To pass two cars in two laps is pretty unrealistic. Just had to try and hope that Bruno was going to get the job done, was just going to sneak through. Didn't happen that way. Just had to settle for third."
Bruno Junqueira #2 Newman/Haas Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone - "I mean, it was very entertaining race for me. I did a very good start from 10th. I was already behind A.J. I don't know which position, but maybe eighth or seventh. Someone hit me on the exit of turn one. I spun. Andrew Ranger hit me big time when I was spun, hit me sideways. Lucky didn't damage much of the car. A little bit of the under wing at the side pod, between the side pods. I started from last, the restart from last. I was passing guys. I think I went up to eight. I think I passed like seven, eight guys on the track, not using the 'push to pass', trying to save it."
A.J. Allmendinger #7 INDECK Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone - "I came up the front straightaway P1. How the heck did that happen? I couldn't believe it. You know, I mean, the last two laps were probably the toughest that I've ever had in a Champ Car. Just to hold on against guys that I knew, A, were a lot quicker than me, and, B, had plenty of push-to-pass left to pass me. I tried to hit my marks. Fortunately we came away with it.
A.J. Allmendinger became the first U.S.-born driver to win at Road America since Michael Andretti took victory here in 1996.
Bonus points not withstanding, today's result means that Sebastien Bourdais officially clinches the 2006 Champ Car title with a ninth-place finish in Surfers Paradise.
Bourdais led 28 laps on the day, raising his career total of laps led to 1,616. the total moves him ahead of Parnelli Jones for 17th on the all-time series list.
The three-day attendance figure for this weekend's event in Road America is 61,031.