Junqueira's runner-up finish bolsters hopes for 'rest' of field

BOLDERBURG, Belgium -- Sebastien Bourdais has won so many races in the Champ Car World Series that it has become passé. Rookie Graham Rahal's third-place finish two spots behind his team leader in the Champ Car Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit Zolder only emphasized Newman/Haas/Lanigan's superiority.

But the second-place finisher in Sunday's 73-lap race was certainly newsworthy. Bruno Junqueira was the runner-up in Belgium, matching the best result in the 24-year history of Dale Coyne Racing. It was a timely reminder that the 29-year-old Brazilian is still a top-level Champ Car driver, and it demonstrated that on any given day, any team on the admittedly thin grid can earn a trophy and a trip to the podium.

It was interesting that "Junky" shared the rostrum with the Newman/Haas/Lanigan drivers because he was dropped by the iconic team in favor of 18-year-old Rahal this season. Junqueira ended up in a marriage of convenience with Coyne, who has faithfully helped fill the Champ Car field for more than two decades while rarely troubling the front-runners.

Bruno could have viewed going to work for Coyne after four years at Newman/Haas as a sort of penance. Instead, he grasped the opportunity to help the small team move up the grid, getting the most out of the fact that Champ Car's move to a new Panoz-Cosworth spec package helped equalize the field this year.

Coyne's budget isn't any bigger than it used to be, and second driver Katherine Legge's effort is being run on even more of a shoestring than Junqueira's. So Junqueira's podium finish really represented a victory for the little guy, and splitting the cars of his dominant former employer must have given Junqueira a great sense of pride.

It certainly drew smiles up and down the pit lane.

"I'm very happy to get a podium for the Dale Coyne Racing team," Junqueira said. "The team works very hard, especially the mechanics. I have three full-time mechanics, so they have to work three times as hard as any other team because there are just not enough people to do all the things. So they deserve to get great results."

The Junqueira-Coyne marriage started the season well with a series of top-10s but faded in June as a lack of road course testing began to show. A July test session at Putnam Park near Indianapolis with new engineer Dave Morgan helped Junqueira improve his qualifying performances, but before Sunday, he hadn't put together a finish better than fifth.

"It's my first podium this year, and I usually get 10 of them," he joked. "So this podium is very sweet."

Fourth on the grid was the best starting position this year for the No. 19 Sonny's Barbecue car, but it almost all went to naught when a fueling problem dropped Junqueira to 15th place after the first round of pit stops.

"There were a lot of problems, and it was very slow refueling," Bruno said. "I think I lost 11 positions on the first pit stops and there were just two cars behind me -- Katherine [Legge] and Mario Dominguez.

"To go from fourth to 15th is hard, but I kept my head cool. I knew I had to save fuel, and there was a good window for the second yellow, so I took the risk and I started to race with [Paul] Tracy, [Alex] Tagliani and Oriol [Servia]. I passed Tracy, and I was able to save more fuel than Oriol and Tagliani and then I went two laps later than them. That was what let me stop as late as I could to finish the race by saving a lot of fuel."

That effectively put Junqueira into the lead, and Bourdais knew it.

"The guys that were in front of us were out of sequence, and we were not completely sure when they were going to have to pit," the race winner said. "Craig [Hampson, engineer] figured out actually that the only one that was going to make it to the end was Bruno -- although he only told me that once I had passed him."

It's my first podium this year, and I usually get 10 of them. So this podium is very sweet.

Bruno Junqueira

Although Bourdais barged past with what Junqueira called a "banzai" move and pulled away to win by 13 seconds, Junqueira drove the last 20 laps in full fuel-saving mode while defending his second place from Rahal.

"After the last yellow, it was hard because I just drove hard and on the limit but saving fuel," he said. "That's very difficult because you can get a surprise at any time. So I started to do a strategy. I'd get out of every corner and look in my mirror to see where is Graham. And just before braking, I'd look again.

"It's very difficult not to lose concentration when you are driving like that, but I managed to keep a good pace and make good mileage, and we finished the race. I hope I can get another great result next week in Assen."

Before starting his American career in 2001, Junqueira won the FIA Formula 3000 championship and was a test driver for the Williams F1 team. He said many of the Belgian fans reminded him of his time in Europe.

"They bring me a lot of memories," he said. "They brought hero cards from my rookie Champ Car season in 2001 when I was the young kid on the block. It's very nice when you sign those things. I had a lot of fun this weekend, and it was great to finish on the podium."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.