CART FedEx Championship Series title chase heads to Rockingham as oval specialists look to stay in the hunt. INDIANAPOLIS (September 10, 2002) - The scream machines of the CART FedEx Championship Series return to the oval tracks this weekend for...
CART FedEx Championship Series title chase heads to Rockingham as oval specialists look to stay in the hunt.
INDIANAPOLIS (September 10, 2002) - The scream machines of the CART FedEx Championship Series return to the oval tracks this weekend for the first time since the end of June as the drivers and teams battling for the Vanderbilt Cup head to Corby, England for Saturday's Rockingham 500.
The Champ Cars will make their second appearance on the new 1.479-mile Rockingham Motor Speedway following an inaugural event last season that had fans on their feet up to the final lap when Gil de Ferran made a brilliant pass of polesitter Kenny Brack (#12 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) with two turns to go to claim his first win of the year. The victory signaled the beginning of the end for Brack's title hopes as de Ferran moved to within six points of the championship leader, then took the spot for good the next weekend in Houston.
The majority of the current crop of Champ Car drivers are hoping for a reenactment of that scenario this season as most of them could use a win on the Rockingham oval if they are to continue entertaining any hopes of chasing down series leader Cristiano da Matta (#6 Havoline Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone). Da Matta currently holds a 52-point lead in the championship over Shell Grand Prix of Denver winner Bruno Junqueira (#4 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) but has built that lead on the strength of his road- and street-course prowess this year, leaving the door at least partially open for some of CART's oval specialists.
Not to say that da Matta can not find his way around a four-turn race track. The Newman/Haas driver failed to earn a top-10 finish in the first two oval races of the season but ended that streak in style by taking the checkered flag in Chicago. There are however, five drivers in the series that have better average oval-track finishes than the points leader and they will need to build on those statistics this weekend if they are to stay in the title hunt.
Junqueira leads all Champ Car pilots in oval-track finishes this season with a win from the pole at Motegi and a runner-up effort to da Matta at Chicago. His average finish of 4.3 on the circular layouts leads the loop and the Brazilian sophomore is one of just three drivers to have earned top-10 placings in each of the three oval events this year. Right behind him on that list is the same driver who chases him in the point standings as Dario Franchitti (#27 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) will need to turn his recent fortunes around if he is to stay within reach of the points lead.
Franchitti has been the epitome of the hit-or-miss driver ever since CART has left Chicago. The Scot won the pole and finished third in the Windy City but has only finished two of the seven races since. The saving grace for Franchitti and the thing that has kept him alive in the championship chase is the fact that the two races that he has finished - he has finished first (Vancouver and Montreal). He has a pair of oval-track podiums this season and is second in points scored on the ovals this season with 30, but another DNF could end his championship dreams.
Franchitti's teammate Paul Tracy (#26 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) will look to atone for taking his teammate out on the first lap of the Shell Grand Prix of Denver and will be working on doubling his 2002 win total as he heads to Rockingham. Tracy won at the venerable Milwaukee Mile just one week after his disputed runner-up finish in the Indianapolis 500 and leads the series in oval-track laps led with 222.
The only other driver to lead more than 100 circular orbits this season is a driver that is still looking for his first Champ Car victory. Alex Tagliani (#33 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) finished second in this season's race in Motegi and qualified second at Chicago before finishing seventh. Tagliani has been one of the most consistent drivers in the series over the last three months, setting a new Player's/Forsythe record for consecutive points-paying finishes with 10. His teammate Patrick Carpentier
(#32 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) has used the interval between oval visits to his advantage, compiling 63 points in the seven races since leaving Chicago and moving into fourth place in the championship. His 63 points during that seven-race span is second only to da Matta's 80 and was built on the strength of wins in Cleveland and Mid-Ohio.
Just one week after nearly collecting his first win of the year, Scott Dixon (#44 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) is another of CART's young guns that has shown considerable oval skill. He joins Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Junqueira and Team Rahal's Michel Jourdain Jr. (#9 Gigante Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) as the only drivers to have earned top 10s in this year's three previous oval runs and claimed the only Champ Car win of his career on the Nazareth Speedway oval last season. Jourdain continues his remarkable run that has seen him score points in every race of the season, setting his own team record in the process. He is also the only driver this season to be running at the end of each of the year's 14 events.
Christian Fittipaldi (#11 Lilly Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) has kept himself alive in pursuit of his Newman/Haas teammate da Matta with top-seven finishes in each of the last four races, putting himself in fifth place in the point standings with 98. He has tasted oval-track success in the past, earning a million dollars with a season-ending victory at California Speedway in 2000. He has also snared podiums after oval runs in Motegi, Rio, Indianapolis and California.
Former Formula 1 test driver and International F3000 pilot Darren Manning (#19 RAC Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) will make his CART debut in his home country this weekend as he joins the team owned by long-time Champ Car team owner Dale Coyne. Manning is no stranger to success in England, having won the only pole of his F3000 career at Silverstone in 2000 in a race where he would finish a career-best second.
A driver that could surprise this weekend runs out of the Patrick Racing stable as Oriol Servia (#20 Visteon Toyota/Reynard/Bridgestone) takes to the track for the first time since having his contract with Patrick extended for the duration of the 2002 season. Servia replaced rookie points leader Townsend Bell on an interim basis at Vancouver and was signed last week to run the rest of the year. Servia opened eyes with a sixth-place finish at Motegi after starting 20th, and climbed eight positions from his grid spot to finish 10th at Rockingham a year ago.
CART's newest team owner Michael Andretti (#39 Motorola Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) has seen a myriad of changes since the last oval race, including the announcement that he would be the co-owner of Andretti/Green Racing next season. Andretti has been able to take care of his equipment this season and his 12 finishes are the second-most in the series. He returns to a Rockingham track that saw him start third and finish fifth a year ago and needs to repeat that performance if he is to avoid the late-season charges of Jimmy Vasser (#8 Shell Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and Tony Kanaan (#10 Pioneer/WorldCom Honda/Lola/Bridgestone), who have each posted top-fives in two of the last three events after having only one top-five all year to that point.
Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc. (NYSE: MPH) owns, operates and markets the CART FedEx Championship Series. Current points leader Cristiano da Matta, along with former series champions Michael Andretti and Jimmy Vasser, are among the stars battling for the 2002 FedEx Championship Series title with championship-winning teams such as Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Newman/Haas Racing, Patrick Racing and Team KOOL Green. CART Champ Cars are thoroughbred racing machines that reach speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, showcasing the technical expertise of manufacturers such as Ford Motor Company, Lola Cars, Reynard Motorsport and Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire, LLC. The 19-race 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series will be broadcast by new television partners, CBS, FOX and SPEED Channel. CART also owns and operates its top development series, the CART Toyota Atlantic Championship. Learn more about CART's open-wheel racing series at www.cart.com.