As the 2003 CART Toyota Atlantic Championship heads into its final, three-race stretch run - beginning with Saturday's Molson Indy Montreal - rookie AJ Allmendinger holds a 20-point lead over Scotland's Ryan Dalziel, but the RuSPORT driver is well aware that the glory could still be snatched away from him.

Allmendinger and the remaining four drivers still in mathematical contention for the 2003 crown need not look further afield than last year's title race - when Michael Valiante held a 19-point lead over Jon Fogarty heading into the final quarter of the season - to see how quickly the complexion of a championship can change. Valiante's lead was reduced to 14 points after round ten at Road America and, after the penultimate round of the season in Montreal, was clinging to a six-point advantage over the American.

The championship battle came down to the final race of the season in Denver, where Valiante saw his championship dreams go up in smoke as Fogarty went on the win the race, while the former points leader spun in a vain attempt to keep his hopes alive. The Canadian wound up with a twelfth place result and only second spot in the championship standings, eleven points behind Fogarty.

Valiante's undoing proved to be finishes of fourth, seventh, and twelfth in the last three races, while Fogarty had a pair of second place finishes to go with his victory in the season finale to take the crown.

Having said that, there haven't been many chinks in the armour for Allmendinger and the first-year RuSPORT team through the first nine races this year. Despite the fact that he did not earn any championship points in the race at Mid-Ohio due to a dust-up with Valiante on the first green flag lap that left him 17th in the final placings, Allmendinger has qualified on the pole in each of his past four starts, and has been the fastest driver in eight consecutive qualifying sessions, dating back to first round qualifying in Cleveland early last month.

In fact, Allmendinger owes much of his championship lead at this point to his prowess in qualifying, as he has earned eleven bonus points for being the fastest qualifier in a session. Likewise, he has led the most laps in each of his five victories this season, bringing his total bonus point haul to 16 thus far in 2003.

Also working in Allmendinger's favour is the fact that he rebounded from his only other finish outside the top five - an eighth place run in the season-opening Tecate Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix, which was won by Valiante - by winning two of the next three races. If Allmendinger can do that again, the championship will be his.

Once again, however, it has to be said that anything can happen. While Allmendinger is unmatched with five victories this season, chief rival Dalziel has as many podium finishes through the first nine races. If Allmendinger encounters misfortune again this weekend in Montreal, the Scot has a legitimate chance at taking over the championship lead or cutting further into the Californian's lead.

Likewise, Jonathan Macri, who stands third in the title chase 36 points behind, is the only driver in the series to have finished every race inside the top eight positions and is the only driver to have finished every lap this season. Macri is still looking for his first Toyota Atlantic race victory, but has been to the top step of the podium in
Montreal after winning the Canadian Formula Ford Championship event in 2000, and would love nothing more than to do it again this weekend. Certainly, a victory would provide a significant boost to the Canadian's title hopes.

Despite the fact that he missed one race due to an illness, Valiante is still very much alive in the title fight on the strength of two wins and a total of seven top-four finishes in eight starts. He currently trails Allmendinger by 39 points with 69 points still available, and additional victories or podium finishes would certainly help his cause.

The final driver still in mathematical contention is Allmendinger's RuSPORT team-mate, Aaron Justus, but a 53-point gap between himself and the points leader means that he will need some help if he is to stay alive in the title fight beyond this weekend. Nevertheless, Justus is returning to a track on which he has previous Toyota Atlantic race experience for the first time this year, and he is certain to pull out all the stops in an effort to score his first Atlantic race win this weekend.

Despite the fact that the top five drivers are the only ones in the running for the big prize at season's end, the drivers from sixth position back in the point standings are still battling tooth-and-nail to finish strongly and gain as many positions as possible in the championship.

Sixth-placed Joey Hand comes into the weekend on the strength of back-to-back fourth place finishes, and he is hungry to get a third career Toyota Atlantic race win in Montreal. Seventh-placed Danica Patrick trails Hand by just seven points and returns to Quebec after having one of the best weekends of her young Toyota Atlantic career in her last visit to the province, with a fourth place result after qualifying third at the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivieres. Alex Figge is only four points back of Patrick, while ninth place Luis Diaz trails Figge by a single marker heading into Montreal.

Kyle Krisiloff rounds out the top-ten in the championship standings, but he is a strong result or two away from improving his position in the standings over the final three races. Venezuelan Alex Garcia is Krisiloff's closest competition for the final on-stage appearance at the season-ending awards banquet in Miami, and is just eight points adrift of the 17-year-old, second-year competitor.

While the chase for the title takes centre stage, the weekend in Quebec will once again feature four drivers who can call themselves Quebecois.

Owner/driver Eric Jensen, rookie Philip Fayer and the entire Starwood Team Jensen team will have the rare opportunity to sleep in their own beds during the race weekend, as all are based in Montreal. Likewise, Trois-Rivieres boys Stephan C Roy and Louis-Philippe Dumoulin won't have far to travel for the weekend's festivities. All four drivers will no doubt have the passionate Montreal fans on their side from the time the cars pull onto the track on Friday morning until the chequered flag drops on Saturday afternoon.

Twelve months ago, Rocky Moran Jr picked up his second career Toyota Atlantic victory and his first of the 2002 season, passing Dorricott team-mate Jon Fogarty in turn ten on lap 25 and holding off the eventual champion for the final two laps en route to a 0.308secs victory.

Ryan Dalziel had his second podium result of the season with a third place run in his first start with Hylton Motorsports, after running the previous ten events with Michael Shank Racing. Joey Hand finished fourth, while Fogarty's other Dorricott Racing team-mate, Alex Gurney, rounded out the top five.

Championship leader Michael Valiante started second, but suffered a punctured right rear tyre early in the race that dropped him to 27th place. However, he battled back to finish seventh and retain a six point lead in the championship standings heading into the season finale at Denver.

Moran Jr's victory came after the American started fifth on the grid, and snapped a streak of six consecutive Atlantic races at the venue in which the polesitter had gone on to win the race, dating to a victory by polesitter Patrick Carpentier in 1996. It also snapped a streak of consecutive victories for Canadian drivers at seven, dating to a win by David Empringham in 1995. In 22 Toyota Atlantic races at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, the polesitter has gone on to win eleven times, with Canadian drivers taking a similar number of successes.