Bourdais good enough to win half the time

HOUSTON, Texas -- Sebastien Bourdais has won 50 percent of the Champ Car events since the start of the 2004 season.

Fifty percent. Take a moment to soak that in.

You could combine the win total for NASCAR stars Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, but it wouldn't come close to 50 percent of the Nextel Cup races in the past four seasons.

Victory No. 22 of the last 44 Champ Car events came Sunday in the Grand Prix of Houston, an event the 28-year-old Frenchman also won last year.

But one question keeps dogging him. How good is he, really?

Bourdais is a victim in a feud not of his making. Having two competing open-wheel leagues in America causes some to wonder if Bourdais simply is the superior driver of a watered-down lot.

He doesn't get to compete against IndyCar Series racers Sam Hornish Jr., Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves.

Bourdais understands the debate, but he's doing all he can do to silence the doubters. He helped himself two years ago by beating the NASCAR boys at their own game, winning an IROC race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Now he hopes to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive Champ Car title.

After a nightmarish season opener in which Bourdais made rare contact with the wall in an ill-handling car, he has won the past two events and regained the top spot in the standings.

And he's doing it this season in new Champ Car equipment designed to make all the cars equal.

There's nothing equal about Bourdais when compared with the other racers in Champ Car. Don't let his appearance fool you.

The man who looks more like a piccolo player in a high school band is a combination of Mario Andretti's brilliance and A.J. Foyt's meanness when it comes to steering an open-wheel race car.

Bourdais has the ability to overcome whatever obstacles come his way. He thought he won the pole Saturday at Houston, only to learn later he would start second.

Champ Car officials took his fast lap away when they ruled he interfered with a qualifying lap of Will Power.

"I was really pissed off about that," Bourdais said. "I still think it was a bad call and it was undeserved. I was just trying to get out of the way. I knew [starting second] was going to be a big problem today, and it was. Cars two-wide can't get through there."

Bourdais was right. The race started with Bourdais moving off the track and missing the chicane in Turn 2 as he and Justin Wilson went by Power.

That's a no-no. Champ Car officials made Bourdais give up the top spot to Wilson, not that it mattered.

On Lap 14, Bourdais easily zipped by Wilson and regained the lead. And he did it without using any extra power.

Champ Cars have a power-to-pass button that gives a horsepower boost for 60 seconds of each race. Bourdais didn't need it.

"His record speaks for itself. Look, despite what people say about American open-wheel racing, these races are still extremely difficult to win. Seb just keeps doing it, and it's awesome for me to be able to learn from him."
-- Graham Rahal

But just for grins, or maybe to prove a point, Bourdais hit the power button on the final lap. Despite having a car he said wasn't braking well at the end, he easily posted the fastest lap of the day at just over 58 seconds.

Bourdais knew the race was won at that point because rookie teammate Graham Rahal was more than four seconds behind him.

Rahal, only 18 and the youngest podium finisher in Champ Car history, knows a thing or two about great open-wheel racers. His dad, Bobby Rahal, won three championships and the 1986 Indy 500.

Bourdais' win Sunday was the 25th of his career, which moved him past Bobby Rahal on the career victory list.

Graham Rahal believes Bourdais deserves to rank with the best.

"His record speaks for itself," Rahal said. "Look, despite what people say about American open-wheel racing, these races are still extremely difficult to win. Seb just keeps doing it, and it's awesome for me to be able to learn from him."

Everyone in Champ Car learns from Bourdais, who expects to win every time he gets in the car. But he had his doubts late in Sunday's race.

Rookie Tristan Gommendy, who was on a different pit cycle, was in front on the final restart. Bourdais knew Gommendy didn't have the fuel to make it to the finish, but the finish wasn't the concern.

"I knew all it took was another caution and we were in trouble," Bourdais said.

So Bourdais got overly aggressive and tried to pass Gommendy, but he had to check up and almost wrecked in the process. What was he thinking?

"Right then, I was thinking, 'Don't [mess] this up,' " Bourdais said.

He didn't, surviving one final scare when Gommendy ran out of fuel a few laps later.

"He slowed down and I couldn't stop fast enough, so my front wing touched his car," Bourdais said. "I heard a little click, but I looked and saw the wing was still there, thankfully."

Open-wheel racing fans should be thankful they can witness Bourdais' superior skills for one more season.

He likely is headed to Formula One in 2008. Then, finally, we might find just how good he really is, assuming he gets one of the few competitive rides.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.