- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Sebastien Bourdais has all but clinched a fourth consecutive Champ Car World Series title with two races remaining in the 2007 season. But there is still a lively three-way battle raging for second place in the standings.
Justin Wilson's victory in Champ Car's Dutch Grand Prix at TT Circuit Assen made the lanky Englishman best of the rest for the time being. However, only 15 points separate him from Robert Doornbos and Will Power, both of whom have won twice this year while establishing themselves as regular front-runners. And rookie Graham Rahal, Bourdais' teammate at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, could sneak into the top three with a strong finish to the season.
Taking potential bonus points out of the equation, Bourdais simply needs to finish 14th (in a 17-car field) in the next Champ Car race -- at Surfers Paradise, Australia -- to clinch a record-breaking fourth crown. With the Frenchman leaving the series to pursue a Formula One career at the end of the season, his challengers will spend the remaining two races jockeying to establish themselves as favorites for Champ Car's post-Bourdais era.
Here's a recap of how the race for runner-up honors has played out so far this year for each of the contenders, along with a look at how the races in Australia (Oct. 22) and Mexico City (Nov. 11) might play out:
Justin Wilson -- 243 points (58 points behind Bourdais)
Expected to be Bourdais' chief championship challenger, Wilson has had to overcome a series of setbacks this year and did not reach second place in the standings until he won at Assen on Sept. 2. The problems started when RuSPORT Racing owner Carl Russo pulled out of racing to concentrate on his business interests. Russo was billed as the prototypical Champ Car team owner of the 21st century, so that was a blow to the series itself, but it was even more destabilizing to the team he built, which was taken over by Dan Pettit.
RuSPORT announced plans to cut back to a single entry for Wilson before the start of the season, but after struggling in testing and at the first couple of races (Wilson qualified eighth and seventh and managed a best finish of fourth at Long Beach, Calif.), a technical partnership with Rocketsports Racing was forged and the team name was changed to R-Sports. Sponsorship conflicts caused that merger to blow up by late summer, however, and the RuSPORT moniker was restored.
Results started coming Wilson's way when he qualified on the pole and finished second at Portland, Ore., the first of five consecutive top-5 finishes. Another pole -- at San Jose, Calif. -- was wiped out by some overaggressive driving by Dan Clarke, and the No. 9 CDW car was curiously off the pace at Elkhart Lake, Wis., and Belgium's Zolder before RuSPORT and Wilson put it all together for a fine victory from the front row at Assen.
"It felt good to finally win this year," Wilson said. "We were not as competitive as we would have liked for much of the season, but we seem to be improving, and I'll be doing everything I can to hold on to that second place in the championship for the remainder of the year. A couple more wins would be the icing on the cake."
With Champ Car canceling or relocating races with alarming frequency, there are reports that CDW is unhappy with the series, and speculation has the driver and his sponsor moving to Newman/Haas/Lanigan to replace Bourdais, or leaving Champ Car altogether in favor of the IndyCar Series or sports cars.
"We believe Justin is the best racer on the track, we know he is the best racer off the track and we are lucky and privileged to be with him," said Bruce Delahome, CDW's senior manager for national advertising. "If we stay in Champ Car -- and we're exploring a wide range of options both in and outside of motorsport -- we want it to be with Justin. Whichever car he's in is the best -- that's the one we want to sponsor."
Said Wilson: "CDW are a great company to work with, and I'm very proud to be associated with them through RuSPORT. I don't know what their plans are, and I'm not in a position to answer for them. All I can say is that I hope, like any driver would, to have the chance to continue working with them. The season will be over soon, and I hope that a lot of things will be clearer after that."
Robert Doornbos -- 238 points (63 back)
It's safe to say that "Bobby D." has been the most pleasant surprise of the Champ Car season. In addition to winning a pair of races -- at Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, and at San Jose -- Doornbos has provided the Champ Car series with the kind of dynamic and articulate personality that is sorely lacking in modern open-wheel racing.
Driving for renamed Minardi Team USA, Doornbos claimed podium finishes in five of the first six races in his rookie Champ Car campaign, culminating in a somewhat controversial victory at Mont-Tremblant. That race was memorable for second-place finisher Bourdais' claims that Doornbos illegally blocked him and his subsequent snub of the victor on the podium.
A week later in Toronto, Doornbos and Bourdais clashed on the track, and Doornbos actually took the lead in the championship. However, other than a remarkable win from 15th on the grid at San Jose, the second half of Doornbos' season has been largely forgettable, with no finishes higher than sixth place. The Dutchman's home weekend at Assen was a disaster, as he qualified ninth and finished 13th, his championship challenge essentially over.
"Obviously, our hopes for the championship have taken a big hit," Doornbos remarked. "We were only 10 points separated, and now it's more than 50. We've got two races to go, and obviously it's going to be a great fight for second in the championship. Justin hasn't been very consistent this year, so I'm not too worried.
"I think we have improved our street-course setup significantly by testing at Sebring, and I'm really looking forward to the race in Australia," he added. "It's been very busy since the last race in Assen, but hopefully it will all be worth it when we arrive Down Under."
Will Power -- 228 points (73 back)
Power has been a force in qualifying this year, starting in the top three in eight of 12 races. He began the season in the best possible way, with a victory from the pole in the opener at Las Vegas. But he also has logged five finishes of 10th or worse, including three of the past five races after a victory in Toronto, which has essentially KO'd his championship challenge.
However, Power still easily could wind up best of the rest. He made his Champ Car debut in late 2005, and when he returned to those tracks he was familiar with a year later, he was extremely competitive, leading in Australia and claiming his first podium finish in Mexico City. With Team Australia stepping up its effort this year, Power should be right at the front in the last two races of 2007, and he already is being groomed to follow countryman Marcos Ambrose into NASCAR racing in the future.
"The race for second in the championship is still on, very much so," Power said. "But I think you can say now that Sebastien has pretty much won the title. He'd have to have a pretty big screwup not to finish it off, especially with such a great team behind him. They've got everything sorted."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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