Cristiano da Matta won the 250-mile CART Fed-Ex Championship race at the Chicago Motor Speedway today. The win allowed the Newman-Haas team driver to extend his points lead over second place finisher Bruno Junqueira to 25 points. The win marks da Matta as the man to beat for the CART championship. He had been dominant on the road and street circuits of CART's long championship trail, but had struggled to get good results at the oval tracks before today. Junqueira was followed across the line and onto the podium by polesitter Dario Franchitti.
The one-mile oval at Chicago provided a tough challenge for the CART drivers as the single line available on the narrow and tight course made passing risky and crashes likely when passes were attempted. The extremely hot weather, 95 degrees and muggy, was an extreme test for the drivers, and several needed medical attention after the race to replace fluids, including Junqueira.
The crashing started right away, when Jimmy Vasser and Kenny Brack were the two outside cars in a five-wide pack that tried to fit into the race's first turn. When Brack tried to turn in, the two made contact and spun into the wall and out of the race.
Franchitti got a great restart when the green waved again on lap fourteen, and pulled out to a three-second lead, while Alexandre Tagliani held a similar lead on Tony Kanaan. In this first segment, the closest battle on the track was for 13th through 16th positions with Townsend Bell, Mario Dominguez, Michel Jourdain, Jr. and Christian Fittipaldi running nearly nose-to-tail.
Franchitti caught that 4-car battle on lap 44, and was unable to get around Fittipaldi on the narrow line. Similarly, Tagliani and da Matta caught up to the lengthening pack, but no one was able to pass.
The leading teams made for the pits on lap 68 for the first required stop, leaving only Jourdain and Fittipaldi on the track, as they had stopped under the early caution. When those two made their stops a few laps later, Tagliani held the lead over da Matta, Franchitti, and Junqueira, with all four staying in close contact. The second pack in this race segment contained Kanaan, Adrian Fernandez, Paul Tracy, Michael Andretti and Toranosuke Takagi until Andretti's car start to show some smoke and he headed for the pits and out of the race.
For the next series of pit stops the teams staggered their stops a little more, with Bell pitting on 131, Tracy and Takagi on 132, Tagliani on 134, Kanaan on 135 and the rest of the leaders on 136. Fittipaldi and Jourdain continued a little off-cycle with their stops and came in a few laps later.
On lap 142, Fittipaldi lost his left rear wheel as he was returning to the track on the turn-2 access lane, and he spun out into the racing line to bring out the second caution period of the race.
On the restart, on lap 156, Tracy got a great jump and came alongside his Team Green teammate Franchitti and entered turn one outside of Tagliani. Tracy and Tagliani made contact and both spun to cause the yellow to wave for the third time. Tagliani kept his car running and continued on the lead lap, but Tracy stalled and needed a push start from the CART Safety Team to get underway, costing him a lap to the leaders.
On the next restart, this one on lap 161, Bell hit the back of Jourdain's Lola, sending it spinning and causing the race's fourth caution period. Finally getting a clean restart on lap 168, the field was lined up with the top four positions in the order they would finish: da Matta, Junqueira, Franchitti, and Takagi. Fifth at the time was Kanaan, who later lost a lap with a slow pit stop on the final round of stops of the day.
Shinji Nakano and Dixon would finish fifth and sixth, the final cars on the lead lap. While the podium finishers were the same as the last CART race at Portland (and also matched the top three spots in series points), the fourth and fifth place finishes for the two Japanese drivers, Takagi and Nakano, were career-best CART results for each of them.
One lap down to the leaders at the finish were Tagliani (who, like Kanaan, had lost a lap on the final round of pit stops), Kanaan, Tracy, Jourdain, and Dominguez. The final championship point, for twelfth place, went to Bell who was two laps down. Adrian Fernandez was the only other car still running, but was several laps down after an early mechanical problem.
The official attendance of 25,268 was better than many people expected, with a great number of events in the area over the weekend, and with CART having to organize the race on a short timeline when the promoters of the event in prior years chose to drop the event.