CHAMPCAR/CART: Cristiano's on a roll in Cleveland

CLEVELAND -- Cristiano da Matta is on a roll in the city that is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Brazilian Newman/Haas Racing driver captured his fourth pole from five attempts on Saturday and is now in the best possible position to...

CLEVELAND -- Cristiano da Matta is on a roll in the city that is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Brazilian Newman/Haas Racing driver captured his fourth pole from five attempts on Saturday and is now in the best possible position to take his record fifth consecutive race win. da Matta's pole time of 57.040 seconds was nearly half a second clear of Patrick Carpentier of Player's/Forsythe Racing, who joins him on the front row for Sunday's race.

"I was able to get everything out of my car," said da Matta. "I'm very happy the way the car's working. I've been saying that the whole year. The car is just awesome."

The Brazilian also improved on his own Friday qualifying time of 57.641 seconds to claim pole. The fourth-tenths improvement meant da Matta maintained the cushion from the rest of the field he had going into Saturday.

"Of course, four tenths on this track is a very good difference," he said. "I feel comfortable. But it's two different stories. Tomorrow, in the race, everybody is together. On performance, my car had an edge on the other cars so far this weekend. But how many times have you seen a race that whoever had the fastest car didn't win the race?

"This year, because it's so competitive, sometimes it's up to yellow flags, pit stops and so many other things. So it's the same thing. It's a pretty tense start here, especially because of the first turn. It's a long race. Since I started racing CART, I think will be the longest road course race I've ever done."

da Matta's pole still gives him an advantage as he seeks to capture his fifth consecutive CART victory. He is the third driver with a chance to win a fifth-straight CART race but will be the first to try from pole position. Al Unser Jr. started third in his attempt at Mid-Ohio in 1990. Alex Zanardi qualified seventh when he tried for five at Michigan in 1998. Both Unser Jr. and Zanardi finished third in each race.

Carpentier lines up next to da Matta on Sunday and is one of only four drivers in the field to still be using the Reynard chassis. His best lap, 57.470 seconds, was made moments before he went off course, but still gave him his best start since he qualified second at Vancouver in 2001. The Canadian said he was surprised with the pace of the Reynard.

"If you would have asked me that half an hour ago (about the chassis), I would have said, 'Man, we're so far out, it's not even funny,' " said Carpentier. "Now I think it's not too bad. I think if we find the setup and we find a good combination, I think it's not that far off.

"I think it's more when we get to street circuits that we seem to be struggling a little bit more. On the road course, (teammate) Alex (Tagliani) did pretty well at Portland and was running up at the front. So we'll see what's going to happen in the future. But on this these types of tracks, like Mid-Ohio, Elkhart Lake, it's very similar. It's on the street circuit that it's more of a difficult thing."

Team KOOL Green driver Dario Franchitti, last year's race winner, briefly lead the time sheets on Saturday, ending the hour-long session third fastest with a time of 57.482 seconds.

"The car was good today. The car has been good all weekend," said Franchitti. "We just had various dramas with me going off the track this morning and the fire yesterday. So we've had various dramas going on all weekend.

"The car has been strong. I actually felt there was more in the car than I got out of it, which is kind of frustrating. When you're not on pole, you're frustrated because you got the maximum out of the car and the car wasn't good enough There's a fine margin between pushing too hard and going off." Because the race is run on airport runways in what essentially is a wide expanse of tarmac marked off by traffic cones and concrete barriers, drivers can race very wide in the run to the first turn. They can also run into each other, as has happened in years' past.

"It's like the first turn at any track," said Franchitti. "There's a lot of advantage to be made up - particularly somewhere like here. Overtaking is very difficult, so when you make a move, it counts for a lot.

"From that point of view, you can make a lot of gain in that very first corner. People risk a lot. Particularly here, you can go so wide. You can go almost eight-plus wide, and then what happens is people lose their visual markers and their braking points. The next thing you know there's a big mess."

Rounding out the top five qualifiers are Christian Fittipaldi of Newman/Haas Racing, with a lap time of 57.499 seconds, and Michael Andretti of Team Motorola, who had a lap time of 57.645 seconds, his best qualifying effort so far in 2002.

Other top 10 qualifiers include, Tony Kanaan of Mo Nunn Racing in sixth, 57.713 seconds, Jimmy Vasser, Team Rahal, seventh-fastest with a lap time of 57.731 seconds, Bruno Junqueira of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, eighth-fastest at 57.751 seconds, ninth is teammate Kenny Brack with a 57.797 second lap time and rounding out the top 10 is Toranosuke Takagi of Walker Racing with a lap time of 57.798 seconds. Paul Tracy, teammate to Franchitti and Andretti, just missed the top 10 with a lap time of 57.827 seconds.

Da Matta now has an even 50 point advantage in the championship thanks to the two points he has scored in the weekend's two qualifying sessions. In fact, for the Brazilian, the biggest worry on Saturday came when he came upon Mario Dominguez's spinning car as he left the pits.

In the post-qualifying press conference, da Matta joked that Franchitti had put Dominguez up to taking him out of the session.

"It was a pretty big moment for me because as you're coming out of the pits, you don't expect to see a car spinning," said da Matta, adding, jokingly, "Dario said he paid him."

Franchitti responded tounge-in-cheek, "I'm not giving him the rest of his money because he didn't complete the job."

Now all that da Matta has to conquer is the 115-lap race distance over the tough race course.

"The longer the race is, the more concerned you are, because it's more difficult to get to the end of it," he said. "Everything is about performance when the cars are built. There's just so much. The longer you race, the more distance, the more reliability issues you're going to have. "I don't think I'm going to have a problem physically, but it's going to be a tough race. It's not going to be an easy one. I think it's pretty difficult track physically. It's one of the most difficult, at least in my opinion, I think this is one of the harder places."

Tomorrow's warm-up session begins at 9:30 a.m. ET followed by the 1:30 p.m. ET start of the CART FedEx Championship Series Marconi Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by U.S. Bank.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Bruno Junqueira , Patrick Carpentier , Christian Fittipaldi , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Alex Zanardi , Tony Kanaan , Tora Takagi , Kenny Brack , Mario Dominguez , Chip Ganassi , Cristiano da Matta , Mo Nunn
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing