CHAMPCAR/CART: Fontana: Newman/Haas Racing race report

- Chevron driver Cristiano da Matta's race was running as planned until his race car lost power with 14 laps to go while leading The 500 Presented by Toyota at The California Speedway and he ultimately finished 11th.  Da Matta had moved from...

- Chevron driver Cristiano da Matta's race was running as planned until his race car lost power with 14 laps to go while leading The 500 Presented by Toyota at The California Speedway and he ultimately finished 11th.  Da Matta had moved from second place into the lead on Lap 236 after Dario Franchitti, who was on a different pit stop strategy than the leaders, made his stop.  The next time he reached the timing sensors, he would have been scored in the lead although he did not make it that far. After qualifying third for the event on Saturday, da Matta and the Chevron team set their sites on bringing Newman/Haas Racing its third consecutive victory in the annual 500-mile race as well as back-to-back wins for da Matta here.  After having completed approx. 478 miles around the 2.029-mile high banked Superspeedway da Matta's hopes of beating the CART record for most wins in a season at eight ended along with his race.  Jimmy Vasser, who had been running three seconds in arrears of da Matta immediately prior to his losing power went on to earn his first win of the season and second at California Speedway by a slim margin of .400 over Michael Andretti in a race that saw the lead change hands 44 times in typical California Speedway fashion. It was the fastest CART race ever run, with an average speed of 197.995mph, besting Al Unser Jr.'s 1990 mark at Michigan International Speedway of 189.727 mph due mostly to a racing pace that fluctuated between 224-227 mph all afternoon.

As in most recent 500-mile races, pre race strategy called for an attempt not to lead in order to save fuel.  With the implementation of CART-mandated pit stops every 33 laps, drivers were able to run near their maximum potential although the fuel that would be saved via drafting would allow a quicker stop due to not having to fill an empty tank.  At the beginning of the event held under partly sunny California skies and high 70-degree conditions, he moved from his third place start to eighth place for one lap before moving into sixth place which he held for the majority of the first stint before making his first of seven minimum stops on Lap 33.  He returned to the race in sixth place and ran between sixth and ninth place while keeping up with the front pack of cars before his next stop on Lap 66.  In an effort to keep up with the changing track conditions, the team made an adjustment to the front wing during the stop.  He returned to the race in seventh place but moved into fifth a few laps later before he began swapping fifth and sixth place with teammate Fittipaldi for the ensuing laps before he took over fifth for the final 15 laps before his third stop on Lap 99.  The team performed a routine stop as well as continued to adjust the front wing of his race car.  He came out in second place ahead of previous second and third place runners Tony Kanaan and Michael Andretti as well as gained a position when previous fourth place runner Michel Jourdain spun leaving the pits.  On this stint, he never fell lower than third place and reported that the performance of his race car had improved due to recent changes.  So far the race strategy was going according to plan and da Matta was poised to maintain his spot near the front of the pack for a potential charge for the win in the closing laps of the event.  The racing resumed after the six-lap caution to move Jourdain and Tagliani's cars after they spun leaving the pits.  On Lap 132 he entered the pits in second place for his fourth pit stop.  After the cars of Michel Jourdain, Dario Franchitti and Shinji Nakano, who were on a different pit strategy made their stops, he moved back into second place by Lap 138 and held the position until his fifth stop on Lap 165.  By Lap 171, he was back in second place after the pit stop cycle was completed and remained within one second behind leader Vasser until Lap 193 when he was caught behind lapped traffic and Michael Andretti was able to gain the position immediately before the majority of the field made their sixth stop on Lap 198.  Through quick pit work by the Chevron crew, who finished second in the annual Craftsman Pit Crew Challenge on Friday, he was able to return to the track ahead of both Vasser and Andretti in third place behind Jourdain and Franchitti who had yet to stop. A few laps later he moved into the lead for the first time on Lap 203 once the Mexican and Scotsman made their stops.  On Lap 213, he radioed the pits to ask if he should let Vasser regain the lead in order to save fuel and they confirmed the suggestion so he ran second from Laps 214-222.  He regained the lead for Lap 223 before he dropped back into second for the following six laps although he was never more than four-tenths of a second behind before he regained the lead on Lap 230 and made his seventh and final stop on Lap 231.  After quick pit work for a partial fuel load, he returned to the track ahead of Vasser in second place behind out-of-sequence Franchitti.  He had built a 2.9-second lead over Vasser by Lap 235 when Franchitti drove toward the pit entrance for his final stop.  As da Matta approached Turn 1 he was theoretically in the lead but scored in second until the next time he passed the timing sensor and his car immediately began to slow and subsequently came to a halt in an unsafe location.  The third of four caution flags (one red) came out to remove the car. He led three times for a combined total of 14 laps although, like most drivers wh o ran near the front, he was not scored at the start/finish line for all of the laps in which he was in the lead on other parts of the track. He earned two points for his 11th place finish for a total of 221 this season.  Following are his post race comments:

"To end the race this way is a huge disappointment for myself and the Chevron team," said da Matta.  "We waited for this point in the race to come before we went for it and everything was going as planned until the car just lost power. Before my last stop I was leading and asked the team if I could let Jimmy pass me to save some fuel before my stop then I came alongside him to stay as close to him as possible right before the stop so I could try to get out of the pits ahead of him.  The guys did another perfect stop and I was able to.  He (Vasser) had a strong car but I was hoping to draft by him in the last two laps if he got back in front of me.  If we ran higher revs and used our shorter gears at the end of the race and were able to get a good tow, we could have won. After my last stop, I was running almost three seconds ahead of him and was going to try to keep him behind me and then I lost power.  I had no indication there was a problem.  It just happened.  I think I had a strong chance to get my second win at this track and third in a row for Newman/Haas so it is a big disappointment.  It would have been good to win another 500-mile race for Toyota as well.  If we could have made it 14 more laps we would have been in good shape. If were not able to beat the record (for most wins in a season) anymore, it doesn't mean anything to me (to match it).  The wind package was definitely better than what we had last year.  You could go to the front and break away from the pack.  It was better racing because of that. "

- Lilly driver Christian Fittipaldi had also hoped to be the first two-time winner at The California Speedway for The 500 Presented by Toyota but he finished seventh, one lap down to the leaders after running as high as fifth.  After starting in 13th place for the 250-lap race, he dropped back to 16th before gradually moving up to 11th place prior to his first of seven mandatory pit stops on Lap 33 -- each 33 laps.  He had previously reported that the car was handling well so no changes were made on his stop and he returned to the race in 10th place before he moved into ninth on Lap 42.  From Lap 46 until his second stop on Lap 66, he and teammate da Matta, who was in eighth place swapped positions.  During the previous stint, Fittipaldi reported to the Lilly crew that the pack was getting away from them and that they should work together to draft in order to catch up.  Quick pit work by the Lilly crew, who finished third in the Craftsman Pit Crew Challenge on Friday, enabled Fittipaldi to move into fifth place once back on track.  From Laps 71-83 Fittipaldi and da Matta traded fifth and sixth place positions before Fittipaldi settled into sixth place from Laps 84-98 prior to his third stop on Lap 99 where the team made some aerodynamic changes to "trim" his car aerodynamically.  The second of four caution periods of the day came out for six laps when Michel Jourdain spun leaving pit lane as did Alex Tagliani.  Patrick Carpentier was able to pass Fittipaldi in the pits and he returned to the race in sixth place.  Once the race was restarted, Max Papis, who was substituting for the injured Adrian Fernandez, passed Fittipaldi, who held seventh place from Lap 107 until his fourth pit stop on Lap 132 where the team reverted back to the previous set-up in an attempt to improve the handling of his racecar.  Once the round of pit stops were complete he was in eighth place after losing a position to Jourdain who was out of pit sequence but was able to return to the track ahead of Fittipaldi due to track position.  He held eighth from Lap 138-164 before pitting for his fifth stop.  Once the pit cycle was complete, he was in ninth place behind Scott Dixon, who had beat him out of the pits on the previous stop.  On Lap 172, he passed Dixon and held eighth place until the sixth round of stops on Lap 198.  He returned to the track in 11th place behind drivers out of sequence but was now one lap down to the leader.  As the stops were completed, he moved into ninth place and ran as high as seventh during the stint and at one point was almost able to pass leader da Matta and get back on the lead lap before his seventh and final stop on Lap 231 of 250.  He pitted in eighth place and was back in the same position on Lap 236 when da Matta, who had just taken over the lead, slowed on course.  Fittipaldi moved into seventh place and held his position through the caution period to move da Matta's car.  He momentarily moved into sixth place after Dario Franchitti slowed on course near Turn 4 but was passed by Dixon immediately afterward.  On Lap 246 the caution flag was shown to remove Franchitti's car which was stopped on the apron of the track in Turn 4 and on fire.  Due to the location of the car and the fact that the situation occurred in the final laps of the race, CART brought out red flag so that the area could be cleared and the race could resume under green flag conditions with a few laps to go.  Fittipaldi and the remainder of the field pulled into pit lane and shut off their engines.  The only other time this has happened this season was in Vancouver.  At 3:15 PM PT, the command "Gentleman Start your Engines" was given to the field to restart the race.  On the race resumed, Fittipaldi maintained his position and finished The 500 in seventh place as well as collected six points.  Fittipaldi maintained his fifth place rank in the Championship standings with a total of 122 points although previous fourth place Carpentier moved ahead of Franchitti into third on the strength of his third place finish in the race.  With 23 points maximum available in the final race in Mexico City, a third place finish is mathematically possible although Fittipaldi would have to set the fastest times in each of the qualifying sessions, win the race and lead the most laps with both Carpentier and Franchitti failing to score any points.  Drivers as far back as 10th place in the standings (Paul Tracy with 101 pts.) could threaten Fittipaldi's ranking.  Following are Fittipaldi's post race comments:

"The car was good at the beginning of the race but as the race went on and the field began to spread out, I honestly couldn't keep up," said Fittipaldi. "The car was much better in traffic but when we ran alone we didn't have enough straight-line speed."

- Next Up...The team will return home for the first time in two weeks to prepare for the 2002 season-ending inaugural Gran Premio Telmex-Gigante Presented by Banamex/Visa in Mexico City, Mexico on the 2.75-mile road course on November 17th.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Adrian Fernandez , Patrick Carpentier , Christian Fittipaldi , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Shinji Nakano , Cristiano da Matta , Michel Jourdain