Nine years ago, Sebastien Bourdais was at the height of his dominance in the Champ Car World Series. He had been marching his way to the third of four consecutive titles when he nonchalantly blazed a trail to victory lane in the 2006 event at the Milwaukee Mile. But that was the last time until today that the 36-year-old from Le Mans was victorious in an oval race, and by 2015 it inevitably seemed a long time ago with a lot of water under the bridge since those glory days. But anyone watching this weekend's race will have been struck by the sense of deja vu and of the years rolling back and history coming back to life before their eyes.

Bourdais proved utterly unstoppable in the second half of Sunday's race - just like the good old days, before his brief ill-fated foray into F1 with Toro Rosso. The KVSH Racing driver ended up leading for a race-high 118 laps (nine more than pole sitter Josef Newgarden) on the way to his 34th overall win in US open wheel racing. The first 31 had come during his time in Champ Car, and now he has three under his belt in the Verizon IndyCar Series after also clinching victory at Toronto in 2014 and at Detroit in May earlier this year.

"On these ovals, you can go from hero to zero and back to hero again. I guess that's my story," said Bourdais, who had started the race from 11th place on the grid. "Never did I think we could come up through the field and pass everybody. It's just unbelievable. It's what these places do to you. When the car is right, it's so, so special."

"It's just awesome," said team owner Jimmy Vasser. "Especially here at Milwaukee because it's such a historic place. It was one of my favourite tracks when I was racing here ... We put ourselves on a different strategy to be able to let him go when he could and then in the box saving fuel. He lapped the field. It was awesome."

The race had also proved remarkable for an impressive comeback drive from Penske's Helio Castroneves all the way from the very back of the grid, made especially significant by a disastrous outing for his team mate Will Power who crashed out of contention mid-event for the second race in succession, seriously denting his hopes of retaining the championship title.

CLICK: Full race results from the Milwaukee Mile

It had proved to be a day and indeed even a race very much of two halves. While the latter part of the proceedings were unquestionably dominated by a mighty run from Bourdais, the first half had emphatically belonged to Newgarden in the CFH Racing #67. Having already swept both practice sessions, the 24-year-old from Tennessee then went on to own qualifying and grab his maiden IndyCar pole position.

Newgarden duly led the field to the green flag for the start of the 250-lap, 253.75-mile ABC Supply Co. Inc. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' Ryan Briscoe lining up alongside him. When the green flag came out the leaders went four-wide but Newgarden was able to spring away from the others even as Briscoe found himself swamped by Ganassi pair Tony Kanaan and Sage Karam launching from the second row of the grid.

Just a dozen laps into the race, Newgarden had already managed to pull out a three second lead over the rest of the field and had started to put the backmarkers off the lead lap, beginning with Dale Coyne Racing's Pippa Mann who in any case was soon out of the race with handling issues. Next up the road - somewhat awkwardly in the circumstances - was Newgarden's own team boss Ed Carpenter who proved a somewhat more significant obstacle. His recalcitrance held up Newgarden sufficiently to allow Briscoe to make serious in-roads into the lead. This delay was also a boon for Castroneves, who had been forced to start from the back after missing out on a qualifying run because of reporting to technical inspection too late and who was now having to thread his way through the traffic and couldn't afford to go a lap down in the meantime if he was to keep his championship hopes alive.

It took until lap 34 but finally Newgarden got by Carpenter, with Briscoe following suit seconds later. The two were still locked together when they came in for their first green flag pit stop on lap 55, and while Newgarden's visit went like clockwork it proved a disaster for Briscoe as the SPM crew had problems with the air-jack that meant he dropped all the way back down to 18th by the time he finally came back out. Newgarden by contrast comfortably resumed in the lead ahead of early stoppers Scott Dixon (Ganassi), Juan Pablo Montoya (Penske) and Sebastien Bourdais while Kanaan was now running in fifth place. In sixth place was Marco Andretti, making the Andretti Autosport driver the highest placed Honda-powered car at this stage of the race, after a delay on Graham Rahal's stop had bumped the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing entry briefly out of the top ten. However he was soon able to gather himself back up again and start moving in the right direction once more.

At this point of the race there was really only one car in it, Newgarden was easily able to to maintain a one second lead at the front through to the next round of pit stops, which like the first were heralded by early strops for all four of the Penske squad: Simon Pagenaud was in first followed by defending race winner Will Power next time by and then Montoya and Castroneves just before the 100-lap mark. All four stops themselves went flawlessly but Montoya earned himself a very costly pit lane speeding penalty in his haste to rejoin the race.

"It was completely my mistake on the pit road speeding penalty," admitted Montoya. "I had my finger on the [pit road limited] button but it's really bumpy getting onto pit road so I don't if I didn't hit it, or if I hit it twice. That put us behind a bit."

A few minutes later, a slightly sluggish stop for Newgarden promoted Dixon into the lead while another hold-up for Briscoe - this time over the refuelling - left him battling with Dixon to even stay on the lead lap. Dixon had just settled in at the front ahead of Newgarden, Bourdais, Kanaan, Andretti and Rahal when the first caution of the day came out on lap 114 for the Honda engine in James Jakes' SPM car giving up the ghost in emphatic fashion. While the track workers got busy cleaning up the fluid dropped on the track by the demise of the #7, many of the leaders took the opportunity of a 'free' stop under the yellow.

It was at this point of the proceedings that the balance of the race subtly but emphatically shifted, as Bourdais prioritised track position by opting to stay out on track along with Ryan Hunter-Reay, Simon Pagenaud, Justin Wilson and Ryan Briscoe. Meanwhile Scott Dixon easily won the race off pit road among those who stopped: Marco Andretti and Will Power both had good stops of their own to come back out ahead of Rahal in tenth, but Newgarden dropped to 11th after another struggle for the CFH crew.

The race passed the halfway point under yellow. When the race went back to green on lap 130, Bourdais was able to use a gaggle of lapped cars as a buffer to allow him to pull away from the rest of the field, but it was a short-lived affair before Briscoe got loose on his older, now-cold tyres and spun going through turn 4. As he did so he collected Power, and the pair of them wrecked up against the SAFER barrier putting both Australians instantly out of the race - with serious consequences for Power in particular in terms of his hopes of retaining the championship title. It's the second race in succession that he's been taken out of the race early by being in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting caught up in someone else's accident.

"I saw Ryan start to spin there so I went out wide to try and miss him, and he clipped me and I went up into the wall," sighed a dismayed Power who won from pole position here last year on the way to the 2014 title. "There is no question it is going to make [retaining the title] tough, but we will keep focused and go on to the next one."

Both drivers were able to climb out of their cars and were quickly checked and cleared by the in-field care centre, and after a lengthy clean-up process the racing resumed once more on lap 141 with some wild three-wide racing thanks to lapped traffic and cars being out of position because of the variety of pit stop strategies in play. Bourdais was able to retain the lead and displayed stunning pace as he went to warp speed to put some safe distance between himself and those who might challenge him for control of the race. Newgarden was by no means done and had rapidly powered his way impressively through the mayhem into second place ahead of Kanaan, Dixon and Pagenaud, with Hunter-Reay quickly falling back to sixth ahead of Karam, Rahal, Andretti and Wilson.

Bourdais' lead was a whopping and almost unbelievable 17s by the time he finally had to came in for his deferred stop at the end of lap 170. That was just minutes after his team mate Stefano Coletti had been forced to pull in with a blown engine that put him out of the race, which would have been an ominous warning about reliability for Bourdais himself - not that he was inclined to ease off and coast for the rest of the afternoon, however. Such was Bourdais lead by the time he finally came in that he was able to rejoin in tenth place, and his pace on fresh tyres was even more phenomenal than it had been before his stop, as he sliced past the likes of Montoya and Karam with dismissive ease.

Newgarden had picked up the lead of the race once again but he still needed to pit for fuel on lap 185, and even that was the very outside range of what was possible in terms of making it to the finish of the race. He would have to run with one eye on the fuel gauge for the rest of the afternoon if he was to have a hope of getting to the end without a further stop. Bourdais himself had no such illusions of making it to the finish without a further splash-and-dash and so he was free to put the hammer down, quickly flying past Rahal, Dixon, Andretti and Kanaan so that he was perfectly placed to take back the lead once Newgarden pitted. Bourdais' task was now clear: to pull out enough of a lead to allow him to make his own final stop and hope that all his plans weren't thrown into disarray by a late caution before he did so.

By lap 212, Bourdais had managed to pull out a full lap in hand over the rest of the field and the team felt secure enough to call him down pit road. When he came back out onto the track, the Frenchman still had the lead and now had the advantage of fresh tyres and plenty of fuel. Castroneves was up to second in lieu of his own final stop with Kanaan running in third albeit 20 seconds in arrears from the #11, Newgarden having dropped to fourth after having to lean off the gas and now focussing on defending his potential podium position from Rahal, Dixon and Andretti all of whom were only a couple of laps better off in terms of fuel.

However a caution on lap 222 for Justin Wilson slowing on track with a blown engine in the #25 Andretti Autosport car threw a late spanner into the works, as everyone tried to find a way to strategise their way around Bourdais' stonking pace. Bourdais himself stayed out along with Montoya and Carpenter, but his advantage in tyres and fuel had evaporated. Now his rivals had the whip hand, and Castroneves had been the big winner after being able to win the race off pit road to take the restart in fourth ahead of Rahal, Dixon and Kanaan. Newgarden had dropped to eighth but the caution had been a relief as it had become increasingly that there had been almost no chance of his making the finish line without running out of gas otherwise.

The green flags came out with 19 laps remaining: Bourdais didn't have anything like the same edge over the field that he had enjoyed before the caution but it was still good enough to see him hold onto the lead at the restart while Castroneves and Rahal dealt with getting around the much slower cars of Montoya and Carpenter. That didn't take very long, but it was still enough time for Bourdais to pull away from them by a second. By the time the white flag was shown to the leaders he had managed to double that margin as Castroneves resigned himself to protecting his second place from any threat posed by Rahal in the final seconds of the race.

"I was pushing to the limit," Castroneves said. "I knew the Hitachi car would be very good, but the #11 car was very fast. That seemed to be the key here. That was a hell of a job by the guys. We had a little miscue with qualifying but we never lost faith. We focused on the race. I'm just so proud and honoured to be part of this team."

The three were in any case safely on the podium, Montoya almost seven seconds further back down the road as he successfully managed to off long-time leader Newgarden to the finish. Kanaan could only follow dutifully across the line in sixth place ahead of his team mate Dixon who had been battling a loose car in the final stint and who in the circumstances will have been relieved to finish his 250th US open wheel race as high as seventh ahead of Andretti, Pagenaud and a grimly determined Carpenter just hanging on in tenth, the very definition of making lemonade from what had appeared to be a crate of lemons earlier in the race.

"We had a tough day," said Dixon. "We went off sequence and led for a while and the race kind of came to us later on with the way the yellows fell. In the end we shuffled back a bit and lost some valuable points which is tough to swallow with just four races to go. We'll keep fighting though and be ready to make up ground in Iowa next weekend."

"Our finish was a good recovery from where we started," contributed Carpenter. "It was a long, tough day. We had a decent shot with the way the pit stops cycled through. We were running third on the last restart, but we were the last car in line on old tires. It was really tough in dirty air in today, we needed to be better in those conditions but I think even the best cars struggled in traffic on old tyres.

"At the end of the day, from what happened in qualifying to get a Top 10 and finally finish a race, I'll take it as a positive," he added. "To have one top five and one top ten today, with Josef's first pole, all in all it was a good weekend for the entire team."

By salvaging fourth place at the line from an up-and-down day at the office, Montoya had ensured that his lead at the top of the championship standings was increased to an intimidating 54 points over Scott Dixon who moves up to second place with his top ten finish at Milwaukee. The significance of Castroneves' achievement in moving from the back of the grid to second place on Sunday is highlighted by his rise to joint third place in the standings where he is tied on points with Graham Rahal, while Will Power drops out of second place and is now back in fifth position, 70 points behind his team mate Montoya with just four races remaining in the 2015 season beginning with next Saturday's outing at Iowa Speedway on July 18.

However it is worth noting that the final race of the year - the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on August 30 - comes with double points, so there could still be a surprise sting in the tale given that even Sebastian Bourdais - who moves up to sixth place in the standings after his second win of the season - is still within a hundred points of the current leader and by no means out of the running just yet.

See full race results from the Milwaukee Mile and updated Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings

 

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