Paul Tracy had used unprecedented qualifying success through the first half of the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford season to build a healthy lead in the series as he chases his first CART championship into the final quarter of the year.

Tracy carries an 18-point lead into this weekend's Grand Prix Americas Presented by, which takes place on the revamped 1.15-mile street circuit in Miami as the 750hp Champ Cars will race among the palm trees and ocean breezes of the Florida city for Round 16 of the 19-race Champ Car World Series championship.

Not known as a particularly strong qualifier during his first 12 years in the series, Tracy has parlayed five poles into six wins and 204 championship points through the first 15 races, but recent qualifying mishaps have left him off the podium in the last two Champ Car events. The points leader had started in the first three rows in 12 of the year's first 13 events, but grid positions of eighth at Montreal and ninth at Denver have not only forced him to play catch-up on Race Day, but has more importantly left the door open for Bruno Junqueira in the championship chase.

Junqueira has taken the bit in his teeth in his pursuit of Tracy, fashioning the top qualifying average (2.5) over the last six races while garnering four podium finishes during that stretch. The Newman/Haas driver comes off a fifth-place finish in last year's visit to Miami and returns this season in the seat of the same Lola that saw Cristiano da Matta clinch the 2002 series title with a Miami win.

Junqueira led 16 laps in last year's race but he and the rest of the Champ Car drivers will see a markedly different Miami track when they roll off Pit Lane this year as opposed to last year's layout that ended up with an average race speed of 68.723 mph. Six low-gear corners including the Turns 3-6 rectangle around a parking lot have been removed, creating two longer straights and a switchback that includes two wide corners that come with strong passing opportunities. The result is a shorter - 1.15 miles from 1.387 - and faster racetrack that should provide more exciting racing for the fans.

Tracy and Junqueira may be the main protagonists in this year's title chase, but behind the two leaders sit a number of drivers that have the ability to roll out of Miami with the day's hardware. A Miami win would not only make Michel Jourdain Jr. the first Mexican driver ever to win three Champ Car events in a season, but would also keep his title hopes alive as the Team Rahal shoe enters the weekend 39 points in arrears of the series lead. Jourdain has matched Tracy for the best average finishing position over the last three events (3.6) and continues to lead the loop in laps completed (1,638 of 1,670) and is second in laps led with 339 as he chases his first series championship.

Still in the running for the CART Champ Car title, Sebastien Bourdais could lock up the rookie championship this weekend if he can earn seven more points than Darren Manning in Miami. Bourdais clinches the Rookie-of-the-Year title with a third-place finish or better and would become the first Newman/Haas driver to take top rookie honors since Nigel Mansell turned the trick in 1993. Meanwhile, Manning is in the midst of a record-setting run as the British rookie has an active streak of eight consecutive top-10 finishes, making him the first rookie in the CART era to string together eight top-10 runs. Manning is bringing new sponsorship from with him on his Reynard this weekend as he looks for his first podium finish.

Patrick Carpentier is the last of the quintet that still has championship aspirations after 15 races and will look to erase the memories of last year's trip to Miami while maintaining contact with the series leaders. Carpentier ran just 34 laps in last year's Miami race before contact with Mario Dominguez ended his day.

Dominguez is coming off one of his most exciting races of the season as he pulled off several tough passes on a tight Denver track to work his way to a seventh-place finish after starting 14th. Dominguez has pulled himself into a tie for ninth in the season standings although he is just 11 points out of seventh in the standings.

Oriol Servia has turned his season back around after three consecutive DNFs, posting back-to-back podium finishes for the first time in his four-year CART Champ Car career. Servia became the sixth driver of the season to top the 100-point mark by finishing third at Denver and comes off a weekend that saw him lead a series qualifying session for the first time in his 68 starts, earning a championship point and a career-high starting position of second after leading Saturday qualifying. He will make his second trip to Miami with this year's race, hoping to bounce back from a 2002 run that saw him climbing out of the car after just 29 laps due to mechanical trouble.

A battle for seventh in the point standings rages behind Servia as Adrian Fernandez and Alex Tagliani are separated by a single point with Fernandez holding seventh place ahead of the Canadian. Of the two, Tagliani has the best memories of Miami from last year, as he started fifth and finished fourth as one of just five drivers on the lead lap. Fernandez also had a productive day in Miami last year, moving up two spots from his starting spot to finish seventh.

Jimmy Vasser returns to Miami after earning one of his 29 career podiums there a year ago. Vasser cut a huge swath through the field last year in earning a third-place finish, ascending nine spots from his 12th-place grid position. The 1996 CART champion is in the top 10 in laps completed and laps led this season.

Geoff Boss will make the first Miami visit of his CART Champ Car career but does so with the momentum of having earned his first championship point with a 12th-place run in Denver. He will again team with Alex Sperafico in Miami as Sperafico takes over for Gualter Salles, who will miss Miami due to previous scheduling conflicts. The Brazilian made his series debut back in June, starting and finishing 18th in the Molson Indy Toronto. He will have prepared for the Miami event with two days of testing on the short course of Sebring International Raceway.

The event will be the second street course this year to benefit from the newly implemented single-car qualifying structure, allowing cars to run both of their qualifying sessions as the only car on the track, ensuring that they can concentrate on making their best laps without being slowed by traffic. The new format met with accolades from drivers and teams in Denver and will be used again for this year's Miami event.



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