DETROIT (June 23, 1999) - Suddenly, there's a new contender for the FedEx Championship Series title as the series heads to Burke Lakefront Airport this weekend for Round 9, the Medic Drug Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by...
DETROIT (June 23, 1999) - Suddenly, there's a new contender for the FedEx Championship Series title as the series heads to Burke Lakefront Airport this weekend for Round 9, the Medic Drug Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by Firstar (2:30 p.m. ET, live, ESPN). With his victory in Portland last week, Gil de Ferran, driver of the #5 Valvoline/Cummins Special Honda Reynard, vaulted from seventh to third place in the championship. With 71 PPG Cup points, he trails rookie Juan Montoya (90) and Dario Franchitti (85) through eight rounds of competition. Round 9 will be contested at a venue where de Ferran has enjoyed considerable success. He earned his first career pole position on the Burke Lakefront runways in 1995, then led a race-high 67 of 90 laps before exiting due to contact just five laps from the checkered flag. A year later, de Ferran scotched that disappointment at Cleveland by posting his second career victory, until last Sunday his most recent victory in the FedEx Championship Series. He followed that with a strong runner-up effort in 1997 and a sixth-place finish last year to give him scoring performances in all four of his career starts at the venue. Series leader Montoya (Target Honda Reynard) rides a streak of six points-paying finishes into the weekend and has scored in seven of eight events overall, with consecutive victories at Long Beach, Nazareth and Rio de Janeiro. His first two career road/street course starts in the FedEx Championship Series have produced a victory at Long Beach and a runner-up effort at Portland. Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard) put himself on the podium with a third-place effort at Cleveland last year and has been on the podium in six of his past seven starts on road courses, dating to his first career FedEx Championship Series victory at Road America last year. In addition to de Ferran, this weekend's entry list features three former winners at Cleveland, including Al Unser Jr. (Marlboro Mercedes Lola) in 1985 and '94; Michael Andretti (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Ford Swift) in 1991 and Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) in 1993. The three have combined for 11 podium finishes at Cleveland during their careers, including five for Andretti, four for Unser Jr. and two for Tracy. Also noteworthy have been the performances of Bryan Herta (Shell Ford Reynard), who has scored two of his eight career podium finishes at Cleveland; and Scott Pruett (Pioneer/MCI WorldCom Toyota Reynard) who has scored PPG Cup points in five of his seven career starts at the venue, including a personal-best fourth-place finish last year. Following the Medic Drug Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by Firstar, the FedEx Championship Series takes Independence Day weekend off before returning to action July 9-11 with the Texaco/Havoline 200 at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
* FedEx Championship Series points leader Juan Montoya (Target Honda Reynard) and his closest pursuer, Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard), own the longest active streaks of points-paying finishes in the series at present. Both have scored in six consecutive events, dating to Long Beach, where Montoya scored his first career FedEx Championship Series victory and Franchitti finished second. Montoya's streak also includes victories at Nazareth and Rio de Janeiro, and a runner-up effort at Portland, while Franchitti's includes a runner-up effort at Rio de Janeiro and third at Gateway and Portland.
* Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Special Honda Reynard) owns podium finishes in his last two starts, including third at Milwaukee and a victory at Portland. They mark his first back-to-back podium efforts since he finished third at Road America and Vancouver, respectively, in 1997. De Ferran owns three podium finishes for the season, including second at Japan.
* Christian Fittipaldi (Big Kmart Ford Swift) has posted top-nine results in nine of his past 10 FedEx Championship Series starts dating to last year's third-place effort at Australia. The stretch also includes podium finishes of third at Japan and Rio de Janeiro this year.
* Though it hasn't always translated into results, Helio Castro-Neves (Hogan Motor Leasing, Inc. Mercedes Lola) has been among the frontrunners on ovals and road courses this season. He has led at least one lap in five of his eight starts, second only to Montoya's six; recorded the fastest race lap at Japan, Nazareth, Gateway and Milwaukee; and earned his first career pole position at Milwaukee. Thanks to an assortment of misfortunes, however, Castro-Neves has finished in the points only twice - ninth at Japan and second at Gateway.
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
* Al Unser Jr. (Marlboro Mercedes Lola) is the only two-time Cleveland winner in this year's field. His victories came in 1985 and '94, and he has scored PPG Cup points in 11 of 16 career appearances at Burke Lakefront Airport, including thirds in 1987 and '92 and back-to-back fourths in '96 and '97.
* Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) has started among the top 10 drivers in all seven of his career appearances at Cleveland. He won from the pole in 1993 and also reached the podium in '94, when he finished third.
* Scott Pruett (Pioneer/MCI WorldCom Toyota Reynard) has scored PPG Cup points in five of his seven career starts at Cleveland. His best showing came last year, when he started 14th and finished fourth for Patrick Racing.
* Robby Gordon (Johns Manville/Panasonic/Menards Toyota Swift) has banked PPG Cup points in four of his six starts at Cleveland, topped by sixth-place finishes in 1993 and '95. He also recorded the first lap led of his CART career in '92.
* Honda-powered drivers have won five of the past six FedEx Championship Series events to help the manufacturer to a 154-125 lead over Ford in the Manufacturer's Championship. Juan Montoya (Target Honda Reynard) started the run with consecutive victories at Long Beach, Nazareth and Rio de Janeiro. Following a win by Michael Andretti (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Ford Swift) at Gateway, it continued with victories by Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) at Milwaukee and Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Special Honda Reynard) at Portland. Honda swept the podium at Portland with de Ferran being followed across the finish line by Montoya and Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard). It was the second podium sweep since the engine manufacturer entered the FedEx Championship Series in 1994. The other came at Houston last year, where Franchitti finished ahead of Alex Zanardi and Tony Kanaan.
* De Ferran's triumph at Portland was the first for Goodyear tires since Michael Andretti won the season opener at Homestead in 1998. Firestone had a streak of 25 consecutive wins snapped with de Ferran's victory. Goodyear has not won as many as two FedEx Championship Series events in a row since Paul Tracy won consecutive races at Nazareth, Rio de Janeiro and Gateway in 1997.
ON THE AIR
* Qualifying for the Medic Drug Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by Firstar will air 12:30 a.m. ET Saturday/early Sunday on ESPN2. "CART 2Day" airs noon ET Sunday on ESPN2 while ESPN's live race broadcast begins 2:30 p.m. ET.