Regardless of the outcome of their title duel in Sunday's SunRichGourmet.com
100 at Chicagoland Speedway, Firestone Indy Lights contenders Raphael Matos and Richard Antinucci made no secret of their desire to step up to the top flight IndyCar Series in 2009.
Although overshadowed by rookie Dillon Battistini in terms of race wins, the pair have been the class of the field this season and entered the finale having shaken off the title ambitions of more than a few rivals. When it came down to it, Matos prevailed, leading most of the race from pole, before being pipped at a green-white-chequer restart by team-mate Arie Luyendyk Jr, while Antinucci ran into trouble while making his way up from ninth on the grid.
Matos, however, always looked to have the better opportunities for 2009, having been picked up by Andretti Green Racing and given a ride via its partnership with Lights team AFS. At the time, the deal was a big deal, as Matos had been trying to find a Champ Car seat with the $2million prize he gained for winning the 2007 Atlantic Championship. AGR's move was significant because it came before
the unification of US open-wheel racing, thereby convincing Matos to ditch the non-transferrable prize in favour of defecting to the IRL.
The move provided almost instant rewards, with the Brazilian winning on the streets of round two in St Petersburg, and going on to add two further victories and eight top results on his way to the crown. He also made a one-off appearance alongside Franck Montagny in AGR's ALMS Acura and is now being tipped to step up to the IndyCar Series with the super-team's help.
"We'll see, I hope so," he replied to the obvious question of graduating to the senior series, "Definitely, I wanted to prove myself one more time. I felt that, last year, I dominated the Atlantic Championship. I won the championship and was supposed to get the $2m [but] never got anything out of that as I was unable to make my deal happen in Champ Car.
"With the unification, I had an offer from Andretti Green and AFS to do the Indy Lights championship and I felt that was a great opportunity for me, especially because I had no experience on the ovals. I would be in a competitive team, a team that would have a chance to win the championship, and [give me a chance to] prove myself one more time, show that I had the speed and the consistency and maturity to be in IndyCar.
"So I just have to thank AFS, Andretti Green - everyone on that team deserves this championship just as much as I do. AGR, AFS, they've been great to me all year long and I believe it's a win-win situation. They gave me a great opportunity and I was able to deliver the championship."
Should rumours of a fifth car at AGR - which appears likely to re-sign all four of its 2008 pilots for next season - come to pass, Matos may have to face off competition from more experience drivers, amid rumours that the likes of Justin Wilson, Will Power and Vitor Meira could be looking for rides, but he appears content that the bigger Andretti Green operation may hold the key to his future whatever.
"You know, there's so many opportunities with Andretti Green, not only in IndyCar, but also on the sportscar side," he pointed out, overlooking the fact that AGR was not included on Acura's recent 2009 plan, "I think there's a great future ahead of us - I'm very excited, and I believe everyone in the team is very excited. Let's see what happens in the future. I think we'll celebrate a lot and then we'll talk about everything."