Newman/Haas Racing aims to make another podium appearance at Rockingham Motor Speedway as series approaches final stretch of 2002 CART FedEx Championship. CORBY, United Kingdom (September 10, 2002) --- In an effort to uphold its top spot in the...
Newman/Haas Racing aims to make another podium appearance at Rockingham Motor Speedway as series approaches final stretch of 2002 CART FedEx Championship.
CORBY, United Kingdom (September 10, 2002) --- In an effort to uphold its top spot in the point standings and secure its fourth Champ car championship, Newman/Haas Racing (NHR) ventures across the "pond" for the Rockingham 500 at Rockingham Motor Speedway, in Corby, England for the 15th of 19 Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) FedEx Series events.
The only European venue on the CART FedEx circuit, the 1.479-mile oval of Rockingham is the first oval event in the past seven races dating back to the June 30 CART Grand Prix of Chicago, an event that NHR team driver Cristiano da Matta won.
This season, NHR has been most dominant on the road and street courses that make up the majority of the CART FedEx series, but their performance on ovals has been worth noting as well. In addition to da Matta's win at Chicago, teammate Christian Fittipaldi finished fourth at Milwaukee after an impressive turnaround since the team experienced a less than dominant performance at the first oval race in Japan where Fittipaldi and da Matta finished 12th and 13th respectively.
Of NHR's total wins in 20 seasons, 23 of 67 victories and 15 of their 69 pole positions have come on oval tracks with the most recent oval pole being earned by Fittipaldi in Rio de Janeiro in 1999. Although the team has won six pole positions this season with da Matta behind the wheel, they have all come on road and street courses. Fittipaldi brought the team it's most recent oval pole 23 oval races ago (does not include 2001 races in Germany or England as starting positions were based on points due to rain).
Looking to add to their oval success, da Matta is confident that NHR's winning ways will continue as they travel to Rockingham. "Everybody is doing their job, everything is going to be fine if we just don't change anything and just keep doing everything we've been doing. We made lots of improvements on our oval setup. Our car ran better on the mile ovals but this is the first time since Japan that we are going back to a 1.5 mile oval so we are a little bit concerned because we were just so slow in Japan. We hope that we will have a better car and I believe we will because we did a lot of testing in May when everybody else was testing for the Indy 500 and we were testing for the CART championship. There are still a couple of areas where we have question marks but with our improved performance in Milwaukee and Chicago, where we won, we are more optimistic that we will be okay."
Doing "okay" may be a slight understatement by da Matta as NHR's consistency this season has propelled da Matta and the No. 6 Havoline Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone to the front of the pack. Recently named the third quarter 2002 Driver of the Year, as well as winning eight of the past 16 races, dating back to the final two event in 2001, da Matta is leading the championship by 52 points over Bruno Junqueira who is in second place. In 14 starts this season, da Matta has grabbed six poles and six wins as well as appeared on the podium eight times.
Last year at Rockingham, da Matta was able to finish on the podium in third place after starting the race in eighth (based on point standings) in his first race at the track. He said, "For us, the race last year was pretty good because we were in a part of the year that we were struggling really bad on the ovals and we started to get back on track in England."
"We made some significant changes with the setup after being the slowest cars (both NHR cars) in the previous race in Germany and we were pretty concerned," da Matta continued. "So to finish third in England was not quite like winning a race but it was very rewarding for the team and important for the Championship because that is where we started to get our momentum up again before the two wins at the end of the season."
In the inaugural running at Rockingham last year, da Matta actually took the checkered flag fourth but was awarded a third place podium finish after the usual celebration was over. Recalling the situation, da Matta said, "Castroneves had a pit lane speed limit violation. He passed me in the 50-mph speed limit area. Everybody there is driving 50 mph and I saw a car blast by me. I don't know why CART didn't penalize him at the time but they did it later after the race. He is in all of the podium photos but I got the trophy and, more importantly, the points."
Knowing that NHR has what it takes to get him a podium finish at Rockingham and confident NHR has all of the kinks worked out of its oval setup, da Matta knows the importance of making the most of each of the five remaining events. "The Rockingham 500 is a pretty important event. This year we are going there with the same mindset - to finish in the top-three again -- and, of course score some important points for the Championship."
Not only does entering the final stretch of the Championship mean that running strong and finishing the race is even more important, ensuring a competitive chance at victory on an oval requires a different mindset due to the fact that this is the first oval race in seven events.
"Racing is a different game on an oval," said Fittipaldi. "It is more mental that physical. You have to get a good balance in your car and then just be ready for anything in the race. Things happen very quickly on an oval and you have to be mentally sharp to react to your surroundings quickly. It is a different mindset, racing on ovals."
Fittipaldi has proven that he can master the "mindset" of winning on perhaps the most difficult oval -a Superspeedway -- after he earned his second CART victory in the 2000 Marlboro 500 at California Speedway. Despite his 12th place finish in Japan earlier this season, the team came back strong at the next oval race in Milwaukee and Fittipaldi led three laps before he finished fourth in his Lilly Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone combination. Two races later on the oval in Chicago, he led eight laps but his left rear wheel came off after his second of three mandatory pit stops and he retired in 14th place. Despite the disappointment, the team knows the potential is there for a strong run in England if they can put in a flawless performance.
The fans in England were treated to a competitive race in the inaugural event last year and Fittipaldi cites another reason the fans should watch the race this year.
"The fastest laps at close to 220 mph this year may not be repeated in 2003," said the 31-year old Brazilian who made a promotional tour to the track in early August. "Last year, we raced here with almost no testing and the fastest lap in practice was 24.7 seconds, 215 mph. We've got better wing set-ups and aerodynamics this year so we'll be way quicker than that, maybe 218, even 220 mph. During Friday qualifying, with a perfect set-up, we may be able to do the whole lap wide-open, on full throttle. It's going to be very quick. That would be awesome. For 2003 we'll have lower turbo boost and maybe changes to the wings, so whoever sets a track record this year, may have the record for all time. Even then we'd still be looking at racing at over 200 mph. It's definitely going to be an exciting race for the fans because they can watch the whole lap. If we can put on the type of show we had last year, the fans will love it."
Friday's qualifying will air from 4:30-6:00 p.m. and CART Friday Night will air at its normal time of 10:30 p.m. later the same night. Saturday's live broadcast of the Rockingham 500 will begin at 8:30 a.m. with the 30-minute pre-race show beginning at 8:00 a.m. All times are Eastern and all shows will air on SPEED Channel.