CHAMPCAR/CART: Motegi preview

DETROIT (May 14, 2001) - The past two seasons have produced two of the most memorable title races in FedEx Championship Series history, and based upon the early returns, another appears imminent as the series heads offshore for the first time in...

DETROIT (May 14, 2001) - The past two seasons have produced two of the most memorable title races in FedEx Championship Series history, and based upon the early returns, another appears imminent as the series heads offshore for the first time in 2001 for Saturday's Firestone Firehawk 500 at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan (1 p.m. ET Saturday, tape delay, ABC-TV).

Through three events, there are three ties among the top six drivers in the championship, all of whom are separated by a mere 11 points. Thus far, this year's championship battle echoes those of the recent past, particularly 1999, when Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti finished the season tied at the top of the points standings before Montoya claimed the title based on his seven race victories to Franchitti's three.

Last year's championship race was a multi-driver shootout as five drivers entered the season finale at California Speedway with a mathematical chance at the title. Ultimately, Gil de Ferran of Marlboro Team Penske prevailed, bringing the storied Penske team its eighth CART championship and 10th Champ Car title overall.

De Ferran is off to a fast start in defense of that crown as he stands third in the title race heading into the weekend. At the moment, the pace is being set by Cristiano da Matta (Texaco/Havoline/Kmart Toyota Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing and Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green, who are knotted at the top of the championship standings with 40 points each.

Da Matta, in his first season with the Newman/Haas team, owns a victory at Mexico and a runner-up result at Long Beach among his three points-paying finishes. Tracy has been the series' most consistent driver in the early going, with third-place finishes at Mexico and Nazareth sandwiched around a fourth-place effort at Long Beach.

De Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard) is one of two drivers tied at 30 points, 10 off the lead. Like da Matta, he finished on the podium in his first two events, with a runner-up performance at Mexico followed by a third at Long Beach. He shares third place with 1996 series champion Jimmy Vasser (Patrick Racing Toyota Reynard) of Patrick Racing, who has improved steadily through each of the season's first three events, with finishes of sixth at Mexico, fifth at Long Beach and fourth at Nazareth.

Paired only a point behind de Ferran and Vasser are Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske and Kenny Brack (Shell Ford Lola) of Team Rahal, with 29 points each. Castroneves' season has been highlighted by a 22-point sweep at Long Beach, where he won from the pole and led the most race laps, while Brack comes off a runner-up finish at Nazareth which equaled a career best and was his best-ever FedEx Championship Series performance on an oval.

Defending Firestone Firehawk 500 champion Michael Andretti (Motorola Honda Reynard) of Team Motorola stands eighth in the championship with 20 points. He's tied with rookie Scott Dixon (Powerware Panasonic PacWest Toyota) of the PacWest Racing Group, who became the youngest driver ever to win a major open-wheel race with his May 6 victory at Nazareth at age 20 years, 9 months and 14 days.

Andretti is one of two former Firestone Firehawk 500 champions in this year's field. The other is two-time winner Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Honda Reynard) of the first-year Fernandez Racing team, who claimed the first two FedEx Championship Series events contested at Twin Ring Motegi, in 1998 and '99.

Following the Firestone Firehawk 500, the FedEx Championship Series returns stateside for the Miller Lite 225, June 1-3 at the venerable Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wis.

* FedEx Championship Series points leader Cristiano da Matta (Texaco/Havoline/Kmart Toyota Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing has scored championship points in all three of his FedEx Championship Series starts, including two podium finishes, and as a result maintains the first-ever championship lead of his three-year career. Da Matta, the 1998 Dayton Indy Lights champion, claimed his second career FedEx Championship Series victory at Monterrey, Mexico to open the campaign, and followed with a runner-up finish at Long Beach. He finished 10th in his most recent start at Nazareth last week. With 40 points, he is tied with Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green at the top of the FedEx Championship Series drivers' standings.

* Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green owns top-four finishes in each of the first three events of the FedEx Championship Series season, and has tied Cristiano da Matta of Newman/Haas Racing for the championship points lead, with 40 each. Tracy's finishes to date are third at Mexico and Nazareth, and fourth at Long Beach. His third-place result at Nazareth represented the 44th podium finish of his career, second only to Michael Andretti's 89 among active drivers.

* Marlboro Team Penske driver Gil de Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard), the defending FedEx Series champion, has finished on the podium in five of his past eight FedEx Championship Series starts. He also has been among the top five in eight of his past 12, dating to a third-place effort at Chicago Motor Speedway last July. The run also includes finishes of second at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca last year and Mexico this year; and third at Houston and California Speedway last year and Long Beach this year. De Ferran has also qualified among the top-five drivers for 18 of 24 FedEx Championship Series events, dating to the pole he won for last year's season opener at Homestead.

* Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske has scored championship points in eight consecutive events and 10 of his past 11 FedEx Championship Series starts, dating to a victory at Mid-Ohio last year. Also included are victories at Laguna Seca last year and Long Beach this year. With 29 championship points, he is tied with Kenny Brack (Shell Ford Lola) of Team Rahal for fifth in the FedEx Championship Series, just one point behind Gil de Ferran and Jimmy Vasser (Patrick Racing Toyota Reynard) of Patrick Racing, who are tied for third with 30 points apiece.

* Jimmy Vasser has scored championship points in nine of his past 10 FedEx Championship Series starts, dating to a fifth-place finish at Road America last year. The run also includes a victory at Houston last year. Vasser, the 1996 FedEx Championship Series champion in his first year with Patrick Racing, owns finishes of sixth at Mexico, fifth at Long Beach and fourth at Nazareth thus far this season.

* Kenny Brack (Shell Ford Lola) brings a string of four consecutive front-row qualifying performances to Twin Ring Motegi, where he established his best qualifying effort of second last year. This year's qualifying results include pole positions at Mexico and Texas Motor Speedway, and outside poles at Long Beach and Nazareth. Brack also leads the FedEx Championship Series in laps led, with 153, including a race-high total of 125 at Nazareth.

* Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green is one of five drivers to have scored championship points in each of the first three events of the FedEx Championship Series season. The run includes finishes of ninth at Mexico, sixth at Long Beach and eighth at Nazareth. He stands ninth in the championship with 17 points.

* Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Honda Reynard) of Fernandez Racing has recorded a pair of victories at Motegi (1998 and '99) and has scored championship points in all three of his starts at the venue, including last year's 10th-place finish. He has led at least one lap in all three of his appearances at Twin Ring Motegi and 258 in all, including race-high totals of 102 in 1998 and 153 in '99.

* Defending Firestone Firehawk 500 champion Michael Andretti owns two top-five finishes in three career FedEx Championship Series starts at Japan. He also finished fifth in 1999. Andretti has been on the lead in two of his three starts for a total of 43 laps, and led 26 laps en route to last year's victory.

* Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Toyota Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing has scored championship points in 17 of his past 18 starts on ovals, including last year's $1 million in the FedEx Championship Series season finale at California Speedway. He extended the run with a season-best fifth-place finish at Nazareth last week. His top finish in three career appearances at Twin Ring Motegi is third in 1999.

* Toyota-powered drivers have won five of the past six FedEx Championship Series events contested on ovals following Scott Dixon's recent victory in the Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota at Nazareth Speedway. Dixon (Powerware Panasonic PacWest Toyota) added to a run of success which also includes victories last season from Juan Montoya at Milwaukee, Michigan and Gateway and from Cristiano da Matta at Chicago.

* Ford-powered drivers have won all three FedEx Championship Series events contested at Twin Ring Motegi, getting victories from Adrian Fernandez in 1998 and '99 and Michael Andretti last year. In fact, Ford owns a run of six victories in the past seven FedEx Championship Series events contested on 1.5-mile ovals, including wins from Andretti at Homestead in 1997 and '98 and Max Papis at Homestead last year.

* Michael Andretti of Team Motorola will establish the CART record for career starts when he makes his 274th at Saturday's Firestone Firehawk 500 at Twin Ring Motegi. Andretti currently shares the record with his longtime racing rival Al Unser Jr., who made 273 career starts from 1982-99. Andretti's first career start came at Las Vegas in 1983 in a race won by his father, Mario. His last 128 starts have come consecutively, dating to the 1994 season opener at Australia, which he won. Michael Andretti is also CART's all-time leader in victories (40) and laps led (6,409) and is second in career pole positions (32). His 274th start would rank him fourth in all-time Champ Car history (1909-present). Mario Andretti, Michael's father, is the all-time leader with 407 starts.

* The Newman/Haas Racing Team will appear in its 300th CART event at this weekend's Firestone Firehawk 500 at Twin Ring Motegi. The Newman/Haas team, co-owned by Carl Haas and Academy Award-winning actor Paul Newman, debuted in the 1983 CART season opener at Atlanta, with Mario Andretti behind the wheel. In the interim, the team has recorded 59 race victories and 62 pole positions - ranking second in CART history in both categories - and has won three driving championships, with Mario Andretti (1984), Michael Andretti (1991) and Nigel Mansell (1993). Newman/Haas driver Cristiano da Matta, winner of this year's FedEx Championship Series season opener at Monterrey Mexico, is currently tied for the championship lead with Paul Tracy of Team KOOL Green.

* The Firestone Firehawk 500 will air via tape delay at 1 p.m. ET Saturday on ABC-TV. Saturday's race will also air on the CART Radio Network and on CART's official website, at www.cart.com .

-CART

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Max Papis , Adrian Fernandez , Christian Fittipaldi , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Kenny Brack , Nigel Mansell , Mario Andretti , Paul Newman , Carl Haas , Cristiano da Matta
Teams Team Penske