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Allmendinger wins crazy race in Cleveland

26 June 2006

Just two corners into Sunday's 95-lap Grand Prix of Cleveland polesitter AJ Allmendinger was spinning into the grass, his chances of victory seemingly over. However some two hours later he was celebrating one of the most unlikely victories in recent series history.

Allmendinger emerged victorious in one of the craziest races seen in many a long season to become the first American born driver since Michael Andretti in 1996 to win back to back races and move into a clear third place in the championship standings.

The 23-year old American crossed the line more than three-seconds clear of Bruno Junqueira to the line by 3.279 seconds to take the win with PKV Racing's Oriol Servia following closely behind in third spot.

A large Cleveland crowd, more than 50,000 according to the series, were on their feet from the word go as cars were sent spinning in every direction on the run out of the first turn, led by Allmendinger himself, who later admitted to his own mistake.

Andrew Ranger and Charles Zwolsman spun, Cristiano da Matta was clipped and Alex Tagliani suffered light damage as he avoided Zwolsman. Farther ahead, Paul Tracy tried to split the Newman/Haas cars of Junqueira and Sebastien Bourdais, but ended up flying up and over the Bourdais car as the three got together leading into turn three.

Having been smacked in the head by one of Tracy's tyres, the championship leader was briefly knocked unconscious and it took several laps for the Champ Car Safety team to remove him from his car. However after a precautionary trip to the hospital Bourdais was released in time for the finish of the race with no apparent injuries.

“I was slowly fading away as the pressure (from the bottom of Tracy's race car) was increasing,” a very lucky Bourdais was able to tell the media later. “Maybe his tyre hit me when he came up but it was the bottom of his car that was on top of my head. I probably lost a little consciousness because by the time the whole thing stopped I didn't know if it was a dream or where I was, what happened. I couldn't put everything together.

“For example I don't remember (assistant team manager) Kenny (Siwieck) calling me three times or answering him. At some point I started coming out of it and saw people running toward the car. I don't know what happened; I haven't seen the video so I can't comment too much. I know I didn't change my line but don't know how Tracy got on my head.

“That's what can happen when you race wheel to wheel. I got turned around and the next thing I knew was that there was a car on top of my head. He missed the roll bar and was pushing me down into the cockpit; I was the shock absorber for him. I must have started losing consciousness then because the next thing I remember was being stopped in the grass and people coming at me.”

Somehow Tracy was able to land without major damage and continue in the top five while Junqueira was also able to stay on the lead lap, despite having to pit for a new rear wing.

With the front of the grid self destructing, fourth place starter Oriol Servia led up to the first round of pit stops, turning the lead over to Junqueira after making his first stop. Junqueira and the recovering Allmendinger went back-and-forth for the next few laps in a battle for the lead with Allmendinger eventually making a tough pass in turn nine to take the point.

In clear air at the head of the field Allmendinger was at his best putting more than a second per lap on the field, building a 10-second advantage in just six laps, but the lead evaporated quickly as a Tonis Kasemets spin brought out the yellow flag.

Tagliani and Nelson Philippe chose not to pit during the caution, putting yet another pit strategy into play, as the rest of the field chased from behind. Tagliani held Philippe off for all but one of the 16 laps needed to get to the next pit stop, before both drivers pitted, ceding the lead back to Allmendinger.

Forsythe Racing's newest darling again took the opportunity to stretch his legs, building a six-second lead in just five laps, but the yellow flag soon snatched the lead from the young American yet again as Ranger spun and stalled. Junqueira inherited the lead with Dan Clarke running a tight second as Allmendinger tried to wade back through the field. Philippe retook the lead when the two front-runners pitted on lap 72, and lasted six laps before he coasted to a stop on the back straight.

Even though his chances of victory were over, a small ray of fortune smiled on Philippe when Justin Wilson suffered a suspension failure turn six, hitting the concrete wall and bringing out the last caution flag of the day.

Allmendinger led on the restart, ahead of Dale Coyne Racing's Mario Dominguez who had battled his way from 17th on the grid to run second, while Clarke worked his way into third. With all the fighting going on behind him, Allmendinger was able to pull away and run the final few laps without a threat from behind.

“I got to thank the whole Forsythe team, everyone that was a part of it,” beamed Allmendinger. “They gave me absolutely a fantastic race car throughout the weekend. I thought last week's car in Portland was really good. This one topped that one. I tried to do as much as I could to not get the victory because I spun out in turn two. More than anything, I just kind of, I threw it away and spun out.”

The battle for the podium was the fiercest on the track in the last few laps as Dominguez had Dale Coyne's best ever Champ Car finish in his sights. Clarke however, had a ace in the hole, having 25 seconds more Cosworth Power-To-Pass at his disposal than did Dominguez. Clarke used that extra horsepower on the front straight heading to the final lap of the race, getting a run to the inside of Dominguez heading into the first turn.

Clarke made the pass and went wide, while the veteran Dominguez cut short and tried to beat Clarke up the inside heading to turn two. Trying to hold off Dominguez, Clarke got back on the throttle and spun, clipping the Dominguez car and taking them both out of the event.

“It was frustrating today. We clawed back from an 11th place start to a high of third place,” said Clarke afterwards. “With one lap left, I tried to make the pass for second, and lost out at the end and have to settle for seventh. Still, we extended our lead in Roshfrans Rookie of the Year chase and keep showing that we have strong race pace. The CTE HVM crew gave me a great car and it was disappointing not to keep my podium spot, but it's done, we have to move on and we'll come back strong again in Toronto.”

The incident promoted Junqueira and Servia to the podium, with Servia chasing the Brazilian to the flag.

“All the close calls we had in the race, even the last lap, Mario slid in turn eight, the chicane, I said Oriol is going to have a run on me,” recalled Junqueira, who celebrated his best result of the season. “I just came out of the corner with the 'push to pass', was able to hold second place. The whole race was excitement.”

“Our pit stops were good,” added Servia. “We had a couple issues with the air jack that cost us a couple positions. Plus I didn't have radio communication today, so was not the greatest day to not have a radio with all those yellows. At the end, we got a little bonus at the last lap. I think we deserved the podium.”

Tagliani fought back to finish fourth while Dale Coyne Racing's rookie Jan Heylen provided some solace for his team owner with a career-best fifth-place finish. Dominguez ended up in sixth, Clarke in seventh with Katherine Legge scoring her third top-10 result of the year with an eighth-place finish.

The early exits for Bourdais and Wilson, coupled with Allmendinger's victory, turned the Champ Car standings into a three-car hunt after six races. Bourdais continues to lead with 166 points, while Wilson is 26 behind. Allmendinger lopped 29 points off of Bourdais' advantage with this weekend's win and is just 31 points behind.



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