CHAMPCAR/CART: Cleveland: Event preview

Cristiano da Matta looks to set new CART standard with fifth straight win as series flies into Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport course. INDIANAPOLIS (July 9, 2002) - Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport will be taken over by a different group...

Cristiano da Matta looks to set new CART standard with fifth straight win as series flies into Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport course.

INDIANAPOLIS (July 9, 2002) - Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport will be taken over by a different group of pilots this weekend as its usual clientele of commuter and business planes will yield to the flying machines of the CART FedEx Championship Series.

The Champ Cars will return to the banks of Lake Erie for the 20th running of the Marconi Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by U.S. Bank, but the anniversary will not be the main focus of this weekend as Cristiano da Matta (#6 Havoline Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) will be looking to set an all-time CART record by taking his fifth-consecutive race victory.

Da Matta comes into the weekend on the heels of his fourth-straight win, a 112-lap romp through the streets of Toronto in which he led from start-to-finish. The victory tied him with former CART champions Al Unser Jr. (1990) and Alex Zanardi (1998) as the only drivers to have won four consecutive Champ Car events. Da Matta has tasted success in Cleveland previously, having taken a podium finish with a third-place run in 2000, while his Newman/Haas squad has a pair of North Coast wins to its credit (Mario Andretti, 1988; Michael Andretti, 1991).

The recent run for da Matta has threatened to make a runaway of the series championship as the former Dayton Indy Lights title winner has opened up a 48-point margin of the rest of the field, but there is no shortage of challengers as six drivers are within a one-race allotment of points of each other fighting for the second spot.

Bruno Junqueira (#4 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) is the point man of the six-car group, holding down the second spot despite coming away scoreless from Toronto after a late-race accident. Junqueira will be making his second Cleveland start this weekend but has the advantage of running with a Target Chip Ganassi squad that has four race wins and three poles on the wide-open Burke Lakefront Airport course.

Dario Franchitti (#27 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) is just six points behind Junqueira for third place in the championship chase and comes into this weekend as the defending race champion, having led the last 10 laps en route to his seventh-career CART win. Last year's Cleveland event was the last series victory for Franchitti but the steady Scot has kept himself in the title hunt with four podium finishes this year, including a second-place run in the season opener.

Team Rahal's Michel Jourdain Jr. (#9 Gigante Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) is holding on to the fourth spot in the title chase on the strength of eight-straight points-paying finishes to start the season, but is heading to a Cleveland track that has been less-than-hospitable to him during his six previous visits. The Mexican driver has yet to finish in the top 15 at Cleveland during his CART career, but will need to break that skein if he is to maintain his status as the only driver in the series to have finished every race this season.

The weekend will be a celebration for Team Rahal no matter what happens to either Jourdain or Jimmy Vasser (#8 Shell Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) as the Hilliard, Ohio squad heads to Cleveland to celebrate the 20th anniversary of team owner Bobby Rahal's first-ever CART victory. Rahal won the inaugural Grand Prix of Cleveland in 1982, a victory that was the first of his 24 career wins. Vasser comes into the event with a bit of history on his side as well, standing as one of only four drivers (Mario Andretti, Danny Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi) to have won two Cleveland poles. His 1998 pole run gave the Californian a track record that still stands as his lap of 56.417 seconds (134.385mph) has yet to be bettered.

Qualifying could hold extra significance this weekend, as while the 2.106-mile temporary road circuit is typically filled with passing opportunities, seven of the 20 events held at Cleveland have been won by the polesitter. The competition level of the track should not be overlooked however, despite the fact that seven polewinners have won the event, no driver has ever led every lap of a Cleveland race. Paul Tracy (#26 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) is one of those to take the Roar By The Shore from the pole, doing so in 1993.

Scott Dixon (#44 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) will be looking for an improvement during his second visit to the lakefront, as he attempts to keep his streak of six-consecutive top-10 finishes alive. Dixon is sixth in the points chase and is just 18 points behind second-placed Junqueira despite the fact that he is yet to lead a lap this season. Last year, Dixon failed to finish in his initial trip to Cleveland and placed 20th.

Fernandez Racing's Shinji Nakano (#52 Alpine/Mitsuba Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) will look to continue what has been the best roll of his three-year CART career, coming off back-to-back career-best finishes. Nakano scored a fifth-place finish in Chicago two weeks ago to score a career high, then bettered that mark with a fourth-place run last week. He has scored 22 championship points in the last two weeks after tallying just 23 total markers in his first two complete seasons.

As is the case with most CART venues, Michael Andretti (#39 Motorola Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) is also the owner of a Cleveland win, taking the prize during his CART championship-winning season of 1991. In all, the winner of the Cleveland race has gone on to take the season title in eight of the 20 runnings, the last of those coming in 1999 when Juan Montoya took the win en route to nipping Franchitti for the championship.

Kenny Brack (#12 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) moved back into the fray at Toronto with a second-place run, vaulting him into seventh place in the championship, just 22 points behind his stablemate Junqueira. Brack is also no stranger to strong Cleveland finishes, having finished second in his rookie campaign, followed by a sixth-place run last year in a race that saw him start 17th.

Player's/Forsythe teammates Alex Tagliani (#33 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) and Patrick Carpentier (#32 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) are holding down the eighth and ninth spot in the points, with Carpentier looking to rebound from being taken out in Cleveland's always-eventful first turn last year, a wreck that ended a streak of four seasons where the Canadian had scored championship points at the airport circuit.

The weekend opens with practice on Friday morning at 11:45 a.m. followed by provisional qualifying at 3:45 p.m. Saturday morning sees another practice at 10:00 a.m. with the final grid set with another qualifying session at 1:45 p.m. Both qualifying outings will be covered by SPEED Channel. CBS Sports will broadcast Sunday's Marconi Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by U.S. Bank live, beginning at 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time.

Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc. (NYSE: MPH) owns, operates and markets the CART FedEx Championship Series. Former series champions Michael Andretti and Jimmy Vasser are among the stars who will battle for the 2002 FedEx Championship Series title on ovals, temporary street circuits and permanent road courses. CART Champ Cars are thoroughbred racing machines that travel at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, showcasing the technical expertise of manufacturers such as American Honda, Ford Motor Company, Toyota, Lola Cars, Reynard Motorsport and Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire, LLC. The 20-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.

--CART--

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Bruno Junqueira , Bobby Rahal , Patrick Carpentier , Alex Tagliani , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Alex Zanardi , Shinji Nakano , Kenny Brack , Mario Andretti , Al Unser Sr. , Danny Sullivan , Chip Ganassi , Cristiano da Matta , Michel Jourdain