Last year it was Sebastien Bourdais, this year it will be a new name and a new face as the season comes to an end and a new Champ Car World Series Rookie-of-the-Year is crowned.

One of the brightest young stars in American open-wheel racing, AJ Allmendinger is the current points leader in the rookie battle. After an uneasy start to the season during the first two races, the 2003 Toyota Atlantic Championship Series champion qualified fifth at Milwaukee on his first oval, in only his third race in a Champ Car.

The RuSPORT man has built on that form and has continued to qualify in the top-ten with the exception of Vancouver, where he started eleventh. However, that run turned out to be his best of the season, as he maneuvered his way through the field with the style of a veteran to finish third on the podium alongside teammate Michel Jourdain Jr to hand over the first 2-3 podium finish for his rookie team.

Sitting seventh in the overall Championship battle, Allmendinger is the only rookie to have a podium finish this season, and heads into the final two rounds of the year as overwhelming favourite to take the rookie title.

"I'm really pleased with the season overall," he said. "The RuSPORT team just came together really quickly as a whole and even though Michel came on late, he's been helpful for me. As a team, we set goals along the way and we've met them ahead of schedule. First we wanted to be competitive, and we were pretty quickly. Then we aimed for top five and we've done that and gotten podiums along the way. After we knew that we were, in fact, capable of finishing in the top five, we focused on making those finishes consistent. I think if you look at the last half of the season, it shows that we're knocking on the door every weekend and I'm really happy about that.

"I am still disappointed in myself somewhat because I have made a couple of stupid mistakes that cost us solid finishes and probably a couple of podiums. My team has really delivered for me with pit stops and a great race car and now I've just got to learn from those mistakes and give back to them what I know I'm capable of doing. So, overall though, I'm pleased with my performance for my first year. Champ Car is the best series out there in my opinion. It's really competitive and doesn't allow for mistakes and I'm pleased that I've proven I can race with some of the best drivers in the world."

The young American also earned his first front-row start of his young Champ Car career when he took the green flag on the outside of Sebastien Bourdais in Montreal. Ex Formula One man Justin Wilson, currently second in the standings, is the only other rookie to have accomplished that feat when he earned his first-front row start earlier in the season at Cleveland. These two drivers are also the only rookies this season to have led laps during a race. Wilson led his first lap during his second Champ Car race in Monterrey, while Allmendinger paced the 18-car field for ten laps during his visit to Montreal.

Wilson held the points lead before hitting the halfway point and now 34 points behind Allmendinger. With his experience in F1 with Minardi and Jaguar, the Brit has proven to be quick in qualifying - starting in the top-ten eight times this season. His best finish was in Portland where he crossed the stripe fifth, producing one of his six top-ten finishes this season.

"I was expecting good racing, a good level of competition, fun and challenging cars to drive and a good atmosphere and that's exactly what we've got," the Mi-Jack Conquest man said. "I really like the series, I really like the championship and how it works and it's a good place to be."

Unlike his fellow rookies, Roberto Gonzalez did not make his Champ Car debut at the season opener in Long Beach. With a chance to get his feet wet in a pair of events during the 2003 season with Dale Coyne Racing and Herdez Competition, the Mexican earned his first full-time ride with PKV Racing this year, thus his rookie status. He has earned five top-ten finishes, with his best start of tenth in Las Vegas and his best finish of seventh in Cleveland.

"I think the season has been a positive experience for me and the PKV Racing team," he said. "Although the numbers might not show it, I believe we've come a long way this season. We've struggled at times, but have either reached, or come close to reaching our goal of running in the top-ten all year."

Previous to his Champ Car debut in Milwaukee, Gaston Mazzacane was, like Wilson, more well known for his Formula One exploits. In only his fourth race with Dale Coyne Racing, the Argentinean driver produced a sixth-place finish in Toronto after starting 16th. One of only two rookie drivers who have gained positions in every race they have successfully completed, he has bettered his position in seven events out of nine starts.

The other driver who has gained positions during the races he has completed is France's Nelson Philippe. Upon taking the green flag during the 2004 season opener, Philippe became the youngest driver to compete in a Champ Car race at the age of 17. He has made ten starts, earning his best start of 13th in Montreal driving for Mi-Jack Conquest Racing. Finishing a Champ Car career best ninth in Las Vegas marked the third time this season the Frenchman has finished in the top-ten.

The final rookie currently challenging in the 2004 field is Guy Smith. Making his Champ Car debut at Road America, the 2003 Le Mans winner stepped back into the cockpit of a single-seater following several years of sportscar racing. He has made five starts with Rocketsports Racing earning his best start of 14th at Laguna Seca. Not only did that event mark his best Champ Car career start, but also his best finish as he gained five spots to finish ninth.

Last seasons Rookie of the Year Bourdais is now closing in on his first outright title, and he has been impressed by the drivers who are battling to take his crown.

"As was the case last year, the rookie field is pretty big and strong again this year," he said. "We have a Formula One driver with Justin Wilson and a reigning Toyota Atlantic champion with AJ Allmendinger as well as the other drivers so this year there has been a pretty intense battle between the rookies.

"For sure winning Rookie of the Year last year was a big honour for me and it led to a better season this year. I wish the best to the winner this year. Maybe he will have as good of a year as I have had this season."



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