WEST ALLIS, Wis. — Bobby Rahal couldn't look and Michel Jourdain Jr. didn't want to think about it.
Ten laps from the end of Saturday night's Centennial 250 at the Milwaukee Mile and Jourdain was in position to win the first race of his eight-year CART Champ Car career.
"So many things can go wrong, especially on a short oval," Jourdain said after leading 233 of 250 laps on the way to his first win in 126 starts. "I just had to always be smart and be careful.
"The car was so fast and so dominant, I just had to finish."
The 26-year-old Mexican driver held off challenges from Paul Tracy and Oriol Servia to win CART's first race under the lights.
The final challenge came when Jourdain pulled away on a restart with 10 laps remaining and beat Servia to the finish line by about three car-lengths. As he crossed the finish line on the 1.032-mile oval, Jourdain screamed with joy.
"Until then, I didn't say anything," Jourdain said. "When I saw the checkered flag and the car was straight, I started celebrating."
Rahal, a three-time series champion and winner of 24 races, turned his back and walked away from Jourdain's pit on the final restart. But the young driver didn't let him down, pulling away from Servia and going on to win by 0.468 seconds.
"He did a great job," Rahal said. "I was holding my breath."
"I was going to try to steal it from him," Servia said, grinning at Jourdain. "The start cone was in turn three but, on that last (restart), Michel was on the power in turn two. There was no chance."
Servia came up short of his first CART win, but he did improve his career-best finish from third to second.
Jourdain's win came just a month after he lost a heartbreaker in Long Beach when his gearbox broke during a pit stop with just seven laps remaining in a race he had dominated.
"The two biggest races of my life, one is the saddest and one is the happiest," Jourdain said as tears began to fall. "I almost started crying in the car."
Patrick Carpentier was third, followed by rookie Darren Manning, pole-starter Alex Tagliani and Adrian Fernandez.
Paul Tracy, who came into the race tied with Bruno Junqueira for the CART points lead, appeared to have the best chance of derailing Jourdain's victory.
The Canadian driver, who won the first three races of the season, made a gutsy outside pass on Servia to take second place on lap 170 and was still second when he made his final planned pit stop on lap 213.
Tracy's car dropped off the hydraulic jack at the rear of the car too soon and the left rear tire was not fastened properly. As Tracy drove back onto the track, the tire came loose and began bounding down the track.
He pitted for another tire, but he lost too much time and wound up 12th, a lap off the pace. Tracy also fell to second in the standings, trailing new leader Jourdain by 10 points. Junqueira, involved in a first-lap crash, fell to third, one point behind Tracy, who has scored just three points in the last three races.
"You can't win a championship doing things like that," the disappointed Tracy said. "Three races, three points. We need to do a better job as a team."
The race began with temperatures dipping into the 40s., one of the coldest days in the 100-year history of the Milwaukee track. Bridgestone, the sole tire supplier for the Champ Car series, said anything under 50 put the tires into uncharted territory.
CART officials decided to start the race under a yellow flag to give the drivers a chance to get some heat into their tires. It didn't help.
Moments after the green flag came out for the start of lap four, Junqueira spun. Mario Dominguez clipped Junqueira, who rammed the concrete wall. Roberto Moreno slid into Junqueira and rookie Patrick Lemarie spun through the debris and slammed into Moreno.
"We were three-wide on the start and I was in the middle going into the corner and I had to back off the throttle," Junqueira said. "I got on the throttle after that and lost control of the car."
Precautionary X-rays on Junqueira, who complained of neck pain, were negative.
Dominguez was able to continue, but had to pit twice during the ensuing caution period to replace his front wing. He went on to finish eighth.
Rookies Rodolfo Lavin, Joel Camathias and Ryan Hunter-Reay also hit the wall in separate accidents, but the drivers didn't appear to have any further problem with cold tires despite six restarts.
About 25,000 spectators turned out for the first night race in CART's 25-year history, but track officials said 34,712 tickets were sold and that the cold weather probably kept some of the ticket buyers from attending.