<
>

Young Finn sweeps defending champ in final

SAINT-DENIS, France -- Heikki Kovalainen of Finland beat
world rally champion Sebastien Loeb of France to win the Race of
Champions on Saturday.
Kovalainen downed Loeb 2-0 in a best-of-three legs final at
Stade de France after overcoming seven-time Formula One Champion
Michael Schumacher in an elimination heat.
"I never thought I would be the champion here. It really is a
great race, and the fans created a super atmosphere," said
Kovalainen, the 2004 World Series by Nissan champion.
The Race of Champions, a yearly event since 1988, featured 16
pilots from various motor racing disciplines, including NASCAR,
Champ Car and Indy 500 specialists.
The Stade de France, home of the French soccer and rugby teams,
was covered by a .6-mile asphalt figure-eight track with a
crossover bridge.
Kovalainen, 23, selected a Peugeot 307 rally car to take on Loeb in his familiar Citroen Xsara. The Finn is the youngest driver to win the ROC trophy.
Kovalainen took the first leg by a small margin, and clinched
victory when Loeb -- winner of last year's Race of Champions --
incurred a 10-second time penalty when he tipped the side of his
car into a barrier after dominating the second leg.
"I just hit something and was eliminated, but that's how it
goes," said Loeb, who this year became the first Frenchman to win
the Rally Worlds since Didier Auriol in 1994.
Some 60,000 fans, hoping to see their countryman force a
deciding leg, jeered the time penalty handed to Loeb.
In the elimination rounds, competitors were split into two
groups of eight -- called the Rally Group and the Racing Group.
After quarterfinals and semifinals, the winner of each group met
head-to-head for a place in the overall final to decide the
Champion of Champions.
Schumacher, winner of a record 83 Grand Prix races and the last
five Formula 1 Championships with Ferrari, lost his Racing Group
final to Kovalainen after picking up a 10-second penalty.

One key driver who was slated to run in the event -- four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff Gordon -- didn't race because of a flu that also kept him from much of NASCAR's year-end celebrations in New York City this week.

Casey Mears, who raced in Gordon's place, lost in a heat to Jean Alesi, who then fell to Kovalainen. The other American driver on hand, Jimmie Johnson, also lost early.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.