By Tom Haapanen - Motorsport.com
Team Player's teammates Patrick Carpentier and Alex Tagliani worked together when it counted – on the final lap of today's Michigan 500 -- to seal a victory for Carpentier in the fastest race on the CART calendar.
@@photo:right:filename:cart-2001-mis-bk-2989.jpg@@ Carpentier's victory was the first in the 80 races in his career, and rejuvenates a Player's team that has struggled throughout much of this season. In fact, the team had not renewed Canadian driver's contract for the 2002 season until earlier this week.
"This weekend should be my one and that's what happened," sighed a relieved Carpentier as he got out of the car. "I knew we couldn't lead before the end because we had a little bit more wing and could be flat out all around the racetrack."
True to form, today's 500-mile race was thriller and nail-biter until the very last lap: Carpentier's margin of victory was a mere 0.243 seconds, but that is, in fact, the biggest in three years. Unfortunately, and also true to form, the spectators stayed at home, with only an estimated 20,000 spectators in the spacious grandstands.
Carpentier had started the race far back in 21st place, and had struggled with his second set of tires, falling a lap down on the leaders in the process.
When the green flag flew at the end of the caution on lap 225, there were still seven drivers still remaining on the lead lap, ready to fight out the final 50-mile showdown. Kenny Brack had the lead at the green flag, but Michel Jourdain Jr. had taken advantage of excellent pit work by the Herdez Bettenhausen team to move into second.
Polesitter Brack, Max Papis and Jourdain Jr. were bunched within a fraction of a second, and were passing each other three abreast. Through this mix, Bryan Herta pulled a breathtaking pass to move past the three combatants, and from fourth to first.
At that point, disaster struck Brack and Papis: just as the championship leader was pulling an outside pass on his teammate, his left rear wheel lightly touched Papis' right front, ending the race for both Team Rahal cars on lap 233.
Brack slammed heavily into the wall, while Papis spun off onto the track apron. Both were out of the race they had largely dominated, including practice and qualifying. However, both were able to walk away from their destroyed vehicles without any injuries.
That left Carpentier, Jourdain Jr., Herta and Dario Franchitti to play the cat-and-mouse game for the final ten laps of racing, trying to position their cars for drafting at the right time in order to cross the finish line first.
The battle was breathtaking throughout those laps, and arguably any one of those four drivers could have deserved the victory. But, in the end, Carpentier's tactics, combined with Tagliani's tow, pulled him clearly past Franchitti and Jourdain Jr., and the two Player's cars crossed the finish line nearly side-by-side in a photo finish.
Tagliani was a lap down on the leaders, but was battling with fellow Canadian Paul Tracy for sixth place, when he got a solid tow to slide past Jourdain Jr. and Franchitti, and alongside Carpentier."
"Tag came through really fast, he had a really good tow," recounted Carpentier. "When I saw him coming, I thought man what is he doing …"
"We wanted to be second on the last lap and that's what happened," he continued. "I was just watching out for Dario and the other guys, and then Tag came along and gave me a pull."
Tagliani's decision to make the move on the inside not only ensured Carpentier's victory, but it also sealed Tagliani's sixth position, 0.266 seconds ahead of Tracy.
"I was fighting for position, and Patrick had trouble with Jourdain and Franchitti," Tagliani recalled the final laps. "I just went flying past all those guys. I'm really happy for Patrick."
Tracy had been one of the early contenders, but lost two laps in the pits during his first pit stop, when the pit crew was unable to fit the fuel filler hose onto the car. The fuel man struggled to fit the hose while the veteran driver pounded his hands on the steering wheel.
"I had the best car out there, but we had just so many problems in our pit stops, " Tracy explained. "Unfortunately our regular fueler broke a bone in his foot, and we had to put a new guy in his place, It takes a lot of getting used to and we should have given him more practice."
@@photo:left:filename:cart-2001-mis-bk-2424.jpg@@ Franchitti and Jourdain Jr. crossed the line in a literal photo finish, with both timing and the finish line cameras appearing to capture the two in a dead heat. Final examination, though, granted the second place to Franchitti by a margin of approximately two inches, or approximately 0.0005 seconds.
The Scot's finish moved him into second place in the CART championship standings, at 81 points three points adrift of leader Brack. But it had been a challenging day for Team KOOL Green, with Franchitti and Tracy struggling with their cars at times, and Franchitti had nearly been lapped on the 100th lap.
"Memo was alongside me, and gaining, when the yellow came out, " Franchitti recalled. "I was so lucky not to get a lap down. "
He was not so happy with Tagliani's appearance on the final lap, though, nor his impact on the results of the race.
"He should not have been doing what he was doing, as he created a very dangerous situation," the Scot fumed. "I don't want to take anything away from Patrick, but I'll be having a word with [Tagliani] afterward!"
@@photo:right:filename:cart-2001-mis-bk-2423.jpg@@ Jourdain Jr.'s third place was a career best for him, and the young Mexican clearly deserved it. He had run well in Saturday practice, started 6th, and had stayed with the leaders throughout the race.
"It was an unbelievable race," said Jourdain Jr. " I was sure it was between Dario and I. Patrick was there, too, but then Alex just appeared from nowhere, and got in the way, and I had to lift a lot."
"By a miracle, I didn't take out Dario my right front got in between both his left tires," he continued. "I thought we were going to hit each other, but I managed to get [my car] back down."
Fourth and fifth were Cristiano da Matta and Herta, but most championship front-runners failed to make an impact in the race. Brack went out in the fiery crash, while Michael Andretti suffered a mechanical DNF, and Helio Castroneves finished back in eighth place, further tightening the championship race.
It was a fitting finale for CART at the awesome MIS superspeedway, and it will be tough for IRL to match it for pure racing -- or even for CART to better it at another track.