LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Sunday's 34th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach provided a glimpse into what might have been had the Champ Car World Series answered the bell for a full season.
Will Power took a convincing victory for KV Racing Technology, besting rookie Franck Montagny of Forsythe-Pettit Racing by 5.094 seconds, with Mario Dominguez claiming the first podium for the local Pacific Coast Motorsports team.
Meanwhile, presumed favorites Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing had a troubled race, with pole winner Justin Wilson lasting just 12 laps before his Panoz-Cosworth suffered a mechanical failure. St. Petersburg king Graham Rahal didn't fare much better, losing a lot of time in a midrace clash with Montagny to finish 13th.
But this year's Long Beach race wasn't about the start of a new season of Champ Car racing. Instead, it was the final race for the formula of 2.6-liter turbocharged single-seat cars after almost 30 years of CART and Champ Car World Series sanction. The remains of the Champ Car series are being merged into the Indy Racing League and its IndyCar Series, and Sunday's race at Long Beach actually counted toward the IndyCar Series championship.
After the race, analyzing the whys and wherefores of this year's Long Beach tilt and projecting what might pan out in the weeks and months ahead in Champ Car terms was a fairly pointless exercise. It was basically a one-race championship, of which the biggest story line in the overall scheme of things was determining how much of a boost the Long Beach participants would get in the IndyCar standings.
Power was the big winner in that respect, jumping to fifth place in the IndyCar points heading into next weekend's race at Kansas Speedway. But on that 1.5-mile oval, he and the eight other entries that are transitioning to the IndyCar Series this year are likely to run midpack at best as they continue to adapt to IndyCar's normally aspirated Dallara-Honda package.
It's a shame that the focus on Sunday was on the end of the Champ Car era and the transition into the IRL era because Power drove a great race no matter what kind of car he was in. He led 81 of the 83 laps, only dropping back on pit stops.
"The last 15 or 20 laps, I just cruised," said Power, a 27-year-old native of Toowoomba, Australia. "It was really easy.
"I knew Franck was catching up, but I didn't rush anything. I didn't want to throw it into the wall."
Power joined the Champ Car series at the end of 2005 and scored his first podium finish near the conclusion of the '06 season. When Champ Car adopted the Panoz DP01 in 2007, it suited Power's driving style and he responded with five poles and two race wins.
Sunday's drive at Long Beach was his best yet, as he took the lead from third on the grid at the start and was able to control the pace all afternoon. The one break he caught was when Wilson pulled his car off the track at Turn 1 on the 13th lap with an apparent engine problem.
"It's pretty disappointing because I felt the McDonald's car was quicker than anyone else out there today and I just wanted to make the most of it," Wilson said.
"It might have been a tough race," Power said. "[Justin] was very quick in qualifying, but I wasn't that worried about it."
In the end, Montagny provided Power's toughest competition. Driving in his first [and last] Champ Car race, the 25-year-old Frenchman was highly impressive and got the best of a Lap 47 wheel-banging battle with Rahal.
Montagny kept the pressure on Power over the last 20 laps, but he was never able to get closer than about 4 seconds.
"The team did a fantastic job," Montagny said. "I never had to save fuel in my entire career and I never had to race on cold tires. So it was a difficult race and I was learning all the time. I had done maybe 300 miles of testing in a Champ Car before the race, and to be confident in the car, you need a lot of mileage. So I am very happy."
Dominguez provided the feel-good story of the day with his bulldog drive to third place. It was the best result in the history of Pacific Coast Motorsports, which is based about an hour south of Long Beach.
Dominguez hopes the solid result at Long Beach will enhance PCM's chances of joining the IndyCar Series beginning at the Indianapolis 500.
"It was an amazing race, and very tough," Dominguez said. "I hadn't been in a car for six months and I usually take at least one day to get up to speed, but the first day here I felt like I was in the car yesterday. The car had the ability to finish on the podium and so did I.
"It's PCM's home race and to see their happy faces makes me even happier. I'm honored to be on the last Champ Car podium."
Champ Car World Series co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven (who also co-owns the KV Racing car that Power drove to victory) stressed that while Sunday may have marked the end of an era for Champ Car, it's hopefully just the start of bigger things for the unified IndyCar Series.
"What we have done is in the best interest of the fans of North American open-wheel motorsport," Kalkhoven said. "It has been a long and interesting journey but I honestly believe that it's just the start of a lot of hard work on the schedule, on the car for 2010, and on promoting the personalities.
"We're redeveloping North American motorsport, and I'm committed to it. Please recognize that this is just the start."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.