CHAMPCAR/CART: Da Matta takes the million dollars at Fontana

By David Reininger - FONTANA, Calif. (November 4, 2001) - Cristiano da Matta earned his fourth career CART FedEx Series victory this afternoon after holding off a late race challenge from Max Papis. With light rain causing the...

By David Reininger -

FONTANA, Calif. (November 4, 2001) - Cristiano da Matta earned his fourth career CART FedEx Series victory this afternoon after holding off a late race challenge from Max Papis.

With light rain causing the start to be delayed by nearly an hour, the race had to be shortened as impending darkness consumed the 2.029-mile superspeedway. Originally scheduled for 250 laps, the race had to be shortened twice.

At 3:48 p.m., with 179 laps in the book, CART Chief Steward Chris Kneifel made the decision to shorten the race to 230 laps. The decision came during a caution period for safety crews to remove a piece of debris from Roberto Moreno's car.

Five laps later, in a race that had been relatively caution free, the race was stopped for an extended caution period while safety crews removed oil and debris from Roberto Moreno's exploded engine. With daylight quickly fading, Kneifel trimmed the race distance to 220 laps.

The decision forced a change of race strategies, allowing everyone to run full power to the checkered flag. Prior to shortening the race, several drivers had been conserving fuel, running much slower than their cars were capable, in order to make it to the finish.

In a race that saw 19 different drivers lead at least one lap, the race was exactly as Shell Team Rahal driver Kenny Brack had described on Saturday; "a crapshoot." The game of chance took an unexpected turn when Scott Dixon hit the wall on lap 216, ending the race under caution.

The final caution flag came out as da Matta edged Papis at the line by seven one-thousandths of a second, a distance of about ten inches.

The race ended under caution with Alex Tagliani third, Bruno Junqueira fourth and Tony Kanaan passing Gil de Ferran on the final green lap for fifth place.

"It was a very close finish, especially since I didn't know it (lap 216) was the last (competitive) lap," said da Matta, after earning his third victory of the season, which was worth a cool million dollars.

Radio conversation at checkered flags between the team and da Matta:
"Congratulations Chris. We did it."
"Great job .. thank you."

Despite finishing second, by a difference of seven one thousandths of a second and $930,000 in earnings, Papis was upbeat. "It was clean and good racing today. I still don't know how I lost that race. It was very close."

"I feel that the Miller team did a wonderful job this year despite all the difficulties and everything. It's unfortunate that the yellow flag came out. But it was a great race. I accept the results. I drove very, very nicely, and I'm proud of what we did," commented Papis.

"This was my last race for Team Rahal. I don't know if this is goodbye or see you later, because there's a lot of things still up in the air. I drove really hard for my whole career. We worked really hard on the Miller team, and this wasn't easy. We always believed that we have a good heart, and have good ability and we finished in the top six of the championship. I'm very proud of what we did. I gave it all I had."

Da Matta started the season strong, winning the first race of the series in Mexico. A mid-season run of misfortune dimmed the young Brazilian's hope of winning a championship, but his drought ended six weeks ago in England. In the last five races, he scored 62 points.

"In the month of July, we were really struggling," da Matta said. "In August we were really bad. Up to Germany, we weren't doing very well. I think we were trying too hard. We were trying to be too precise on everything and we lost our speed. Plus, we were trying new things.

"After Elkhart, we went back to what we had at the beginning, things we knew that worked. But we never got a good result until we got to Australia.

"We still have some areas where we are weak and those are the things we'll work on during the off season."

The CART FedEx Championship Series begins their 2002 season at Fundidora Park in Monterrey, Mexico on March 10, 2002.

Note from the Marlboro 500 presented by Toyota at the California Speedway:

The race produced a record 73 lead changes by 19 different drivers. This exceeds the previous reccord of 62 at the 1998 Michigan 500.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Chris Kneifel , Gil de Ferran , Bruno Junqueira , Max Papis , Roberto Moreno , Alex Tagliani , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Kenny Brack , Cristiano da Matta