View from the Topside
Looking ahead to Houston

   by Rick Benjamin
April 28, 2006

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Can Justin Wilson or Alex Tagliani knock Sebastien Bourdais off the top step of the podium in Houston?

Itís been a quiet couple of weeks since the Champ Car opener through the streets of Long Beach. Champ Car teams turned out en masse several days ago for testing at Portland, and this week the tourís newcomers got their oval track indoctrination on the Milwaukee Mile.

Now, after taking care of some short track commitments, itís nearly time for me to fire up again for the meat of the 2006 season. The revival of the Grand Prix of Houston kicks off a treacherous stretch for Champ Car and Atlantic Series teams.

The new Houston round, to be run on the streets surrounding Reliant Stadium, opens a stretch of 3 races in 4 weeks, and 5 in 7. Itíd be fair to say that any Champ Car driver hoping to unseat Sebastien Bourdais as the tourís kingpin will have to excel during the upcoming stretch.

The good news for Justin Wilson, Alex Tagliani and Paul Tracy is that Houston will represent a totally fresh start for everyone. Newman/Haas and the McDonaldís team have excelled on street circuits these past three seasons, but since thereís been no testing at Houston the playing field should start out level.

Itís a tight new racetrack, just 1.7 miles long. Itís the third-shortest circuit on the schedule, after the Milwaukee Mile and San Jose. From the diagrams it appears there are just a couple of short straightaways, but plenty of braking zones and a big sweeping turn around Reliant Stadium that hopefully will provide good passing opportunities.

With no long straights, is the Houston track too Mickey Mouse to pass on?

By the time the Champ Car field takes the green on Saturday night there should be plenty of good rubber laid down, since the American LeMans Series races Friday night and Star Mazda will join the Champ Car Atlantic Championship on the track as well.

Champ Car officials have added another wrinkle to the mix for Houston: changes to the Cosworth Power to Pass option. Power to Pass will be worth an additional 75 horsepower for this event, a change that had been looked at previously. Champ Car and Cosworth have determined though that baseline power for this event will be dialed back to 725HP, with the additional 75HP available for the customary 60 seconds.

Since the track is new and relatively short the premium will be on handling and gearing, but the extra 25HP worth of P2P pop could make for plenty of fireworks in Houston.

Add in the fact that itís Champ Carís first road course event under the lights since the Cleveland experiment a couple of years ago and I think weíll see a show to remember in Houston.

Now, the rest of that tough early-season stretch could help Bourdaisí challengers too. Recall that last year Monterrey saw the first of the Tracy-Bourdais dustups that ultimately morphed into the tourís best rivalry in years. Bruno Junqueira will go into that round as the defending race winner so heíll certainly have extra incentive at Fundidora Park.

And Wilson, AJ Allmendinger, Tracy, Mario Dominguez, and drivers like Tag, Oriol Servia, and Cristiano da Matta will all be looking for strong runs that could propel them into the points fight. Any of those drivers could parlay a great day in Mexico into a spot in the race for the Vanderbilt Cup.

Iím also looking forward to the third event in that four-week stretch. The tourís annual visit to the Milwaukee Mile presents a tough challenge for all the Champ Car teams. And it may be the one place in the series where Bourdais doesnít have a demonstrable advantage. Heís struggled there the past two years, while Paul Tracy and the idled Ryan Hunter-Reay have been dominant.

So as we look ahead to the heart of the Champ Car calendar there could be several challengers who can race their way into the championship mix. Iím looking forward to seeing who will emerge to take on the tourís current King. Weíll be there to show you all the action of these next three events on SPEED, live. Hope you can join us.

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Columns by Rick

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Looking ahead to Road America

Looking ahead to Montreal

 Looking ahead to Denver

Looking ahead to Edmonton - Many storylines

For Allmendinger, life could not be any brighter

A big sigh of relief

Bourdais threatening to make it a runaway

Houston postscript

Looking ahead to Houston

Long Beach postscript

Paul Dana was living his dream

2006 Champ Car seats filling up

A view from the top - Miscellaneous pres-season ramblings

A look at the All-American Driver Challenge

2006 NASCAR Media Tour - Day 4 Wrap-Up

2006 NASCAR Media Tour - Day 3 Familiar Faces

2006 NASCAR Media Tour - Day 2 Toyota announces teams

2006 NASCAR Media Tour - Day 1

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Champ Car: Miscellaneous Ramblings

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A peak at Champ Car TV for 2005

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