Wilson has big shoes to fill as Rahal's new sidekick

The most eagerly awaited driver lineup announcement of the 2008 Champ Car World Series went down Tuesday. Eight-time champion team Newman/ Haas/Lanigan Racing confirmed that Justin Wilson will join forces with Graham Rahal.

Wilson, who will turn 30 in July, finished second to NHLR's Sebastien Bourdais in the Champ Car standings in each of the past two years while driving for RuSPORT Racing. That team underwent an ownership change prior to the 2007 season and ceased operation in November.

The native of Sheffield, England, also finished third in the 2005 Champ Car championship. He has won four races and claimed six poles in his 55 American open-wheel starts.

"My aim is to go out there and win the championship -- that's what I'm trying to do," Wilson said. "You know, filling in from where Sebastien left off is not going to be easy. He obviously jelled very well with the team. He's a great driver and did a great job. So I don't expect to just pick up from where he left off.

"I know I've got to work at it and find my feet and get used to the team and try to get things working for myself and understand how to make the Newman/Haas/Lanigan car go quick. It's going to be tough, but I'm looking forward to the challenge."

If anyone knows how fast the NHLR car he is stepping into is, it's Wilson. Six of the seven second-place finishes in his Champ Car career came in races that Bourdais won.

Wilson actually auditioned for a Newman/Haas Champ Car ride more than five years ago. In October 2002, he drove one of the team's Lola/Ford Cosworths at Homestead-Miami Speedway but signed to race for Minardi in Formula One in 2003.

The Homestead test for Newman/Haas was Wilson's first experience on an oval track and it left a lasting impression.

"It was a big eye-opener," Wilson recalled. "My first-ever time on an oval was in a Champ Car, and the speed was something to get used to. So I had a great time -- it was a great experience.

"But being from the U.K., the draw for Formula One at that stage was still pretty high for myself, and I opted to go that route. Which is something that could go either way whether it's good or bad, because Sebastien then took the Newman/Haas ride and went on to be four-time champion -- and I kept finishing second to him!"

Given that he was Bourdais' most consistent challenger over the past two years, Wilson is expected to be among the favorites to win this year's championship. For Rahal, the goals are to win a race and improve on last year's fifth-place finish in the overall standings.

The 19-year-old son of three-time series champion Bobby Rahal impressed with maturity on and off the track during his rookie campaign. It helped that Graham made his Champ Car debut with one of the best teams in the business.

"We know that we have a determined team behind us to go and win another championship," Rahal remarked. "I do expect better results this season than last. I think towards the end of last season, I did feel much more confident in the car and I did feel that on any given weekend, we could run towards the front.

"Obviously, last season was quite a learning experience for me. Coming out of Atlantic and straight into the Champ Car, I can assure you it's quite the jump."

No sponsors were revealed, and team principals Paul Newman, Carl Haas and Mike Lanigan did not participate in a conference call with reporters.

"Paul, Mike and I are excited about our lineup," Haas said. "Graham ran well for us in his rookie season last year and showed the potential to win races, and over the past three seasons, Justin has consistently been one of the strongest challengers for the championship. We are now looking forward to having him represent us and again being a contender for the title."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com. He can be reached at indyoreo@earthlink.net