- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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DENVER -- Although it's surely too early to say so with authority, the 2005 Champ Car World Series championship may have been wrapped up Sunday on the 63rd lap of the Centrix Financial Grand Prix of Denver.
That's when Paul Tracy, in command of the race with a 10.7-second lead over Sebastien Bourdais, saw a small mistake turn into big disappointment. Having led from the start, the Canadian nicked the inside wall at turn 2 hard enough to deflect his Indeck Lola/Ford-Cosworth into a heavy impact with the wall at the exit of turn 3. Disgusted with himself, Tracy clambered from his smashed machine and scampered across the track away from Champ Car Safety Team members.
"I threw it away," Tracy lamented. "I brushed the inside wall and that threw me across the track. Basically, I just handed the championship to Sebastien and that's devastating."
The recipient of Tracy's unintended largesse was Bourdais, who overcame a litany of problems of his own on Sunday to claim his third Champ Car win in a row. The 14th victory of Bourdais' spectacular three-year American career lifted the Frenchman to a luxurious 53-point lead over Tracy with five rounds remaining in the championship.
Bourdais' travails started in the Sunday morning warm-up, when he clipped the wall at the exact same place that Tracy later would, albeit with much less damage. Still, the crew at Newman/Haas Racing needed to hastily replace the left front corner of the McDonald's Lola.
Bourdais was frustrated that he dropped to third place at the start. Stuck behind A.J. Allmendinger until lap 18, Tracy was already 8.3 seconds up the road by the time Bourdais regained second place, and deteriorating rear tire grip prevented him from launching an attack on the race leader before the first round of pit stops.
"Unfortunately we had a terrible first pit stop," Bourdais related. "In my mirrors, I could see the guys struggling at the rear, then I saw them chasing the wheel nut and I thought, 'Holy cow! This isn't good.' In fact, for such a long pit stop [13.5 seconds], I'm surprised we didn't lose a place."
However, Bourdais did lose ground to Tracy; having closed the gap to 8 seconds before the stop, Bourdais found himself 11 seconds behind.
"I could only match P.T.'s lap times and I was waiting for a yellow, but it never came," noted Bourdais. "On the second set of tires, I started closing a bit. But quite honestly, I was not expecting to win the race at that point. OK, I might catch him, but so what?
"I was really surprised because P.T. makes very few mistakes when he's up front like that," he added. "It shows that on a street course like this, it's very difficult to have a clean race without mistakes."
For the last 36 laps, all Bourdais had to do was keep it between the walls. But he rammed home his point by turning the fastest lap of the race on the 81st tour to win by 15.269 seconds over Mario Dominguez. And he did it while fighting a heavy cold that left him coughing and congested throughout the weekend.
"I catch anything that's in the air," Bourdais chuckled. "But I was sick at Long Beach and I won, I was sick at Edmonton and I won, and now I won here when I was sick. So maybe it's the right recipe!"
Dominguez had an adventure of his own on the way to his best finish since winning the 2003 Champ Car Miami GP. The Mexican accidentally pushed his drink button instead of the radio call button, and the water that splashed into his helmet fogged up the visor. On the 73rd lap, Dominguez took a brief detour down an escape road to rectify the situation, losing two places in the process.
"I almost lost a podium because of my mistake," Dominguez admitted. "After my visor fogged up, I took my glove off so I could wipe the inside and see again. That was a mess and I had to drive with my legs under yellow. Finally I had to just pull off and take care of the problem. I thought my team would kill me if I didn't make it back up to the podium."
Dominguez inherited third place when Timo Glock dropped out with a broken gearbox after the 23-year old German turned in another impressive drive.
"My heart is broken for the kid because he drove a great race," said Rocketsports Racing team owner Paul Gentilozzi. "He went from 14th to third on the track but we let him down today."
On the last lap, Dominguez was able to take advantage of the fact that Allmendinger's rear tires were shot to pass for second place. The American was happy to just see the checkered flag after three consecutive high-profile DNFs.
"Man, that was a struggle," Allmendinger said. "I was disappointed about what happened in the last three races and I put a lot of pressure on myself and wasn't having fun. I thought we had second but Mario put a move on me on the last lap. I'm just glad to see that I still know how to finish a race."
RUSPORT teammate Justin Wilson's championship hopes took a big hit at the first turn, where he was taken out in a five-car accident that looked to be triggered by Cristiano da Matta. That allowed Oriol Servia, who had a quiet weekend on the way to fifth place at Denver, to take over third place in the standings.
But in truth, this year's Champ Car title has probably already been decided. Even if Bourdais didn't show up for the next two races, he'd likely still be on top of the standings and on the way to a second consecutive Champ Car title.
"You can't take anything for granted," noted the rapid Frenchman. "Even the greatest champions all make mistakes and on the street courses we race on, it doesn't take much."
Just ask Paul Tracy.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.