There aren't many things that Justin Wilson can be accused of coming up short in, but late-season pursuit of the IndyCar Series' Bombardier Rookie of the Year title did just that as he missed by six points to Andretti Green Racing's Hideki Mutoh.
The diminutive Japanese driver has led the competition for much of the season, but appeared to falter in the final stages, allowing Wilson to leap-frog Will Power as chief challenger. The Briton's breakthrough win on the streets of Detroit last weekend closed the gap considerably and, when Mutoh appeared on pit-road at Chicagoland with 32 laps to run, it appeared that AGR's hard work may be undone.
In the end, however, Wilson's rise through the field after a disappointing qualifying performance came up four places short, leaving Mutoh six points clear at the top of the table, becoming the third Andretti Green driver to claim the rookie title.
“I wish we were able to finish the season with a better finish, but I am very thankful, for the team worked so hard," the Indy Pro Series graduate commented, "They were able to get car back out on track today and I won the Bombardier Rookie of the Year. It hasn't hit me yet - I am happy, but it's really hard to celebrate it after such a disappointing race.”
Mutoh's season-long performance was sufficient to see him finish tenth in the overall IndyCar Series standings, setting him up for a strong second year with AGR in 2009.
"At the beginning of the season, my target was winning rookie of the year, and now I've got it," he sighed, "Good Champ Car drivers joined this year, so I knew it was going to be tough to win the championship as people have a huge experience in Champ Car, so I'm very proud of this. Maybe tomorrow morning, when I wake up, I will realise I'm rookie of the year."
Wilson's #02 team resolved the gearbox problem that hampered his qualifying effort and, when the green flag flew, he carved through the field, moving up to 16th by lap three and staying comfortably inside the top-15 thereafter. As the race unfolded, he ran as high as ninth place just before his fourth and final pit-stop, and an incident not of his making late in the race eventually dropped him back to eleventh at the flag.
“We had a lot of overtaking to do today, but the McDonald's car was good,” Wilson reported, "We ran in the top ten, and to be out there racing in a pack of cars was fun. I'm reasonably happy with an eleventh place finish but, when it came down to the last stint, I think everyone picked up the pace and we couldn't hang on.
“I needed to finish in the top eight based on where Mutoh was running late in the race and, as I was going into turn three on the last restart, I had a good run and thought I could pass a few cars and get it - but the guy in front of me [Mutoh's team-mate Marco Andretti] suddenly checked up. I was close to crashing, so that let a couple more guys by me and we lost out on rookie of the year because of it.....”