CHAMPCAR/CART: Elkhart Lake: Newman/Haas Racing preview

Newman/Haas Racing returns to their winningest track in search of eight victory at Road America and sixth of the 2002 CART FedEx season. ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (August 14, 2002) --- Heading into Elkhart Lake for the Grand Prix at Road America ...

Newman/Haas Racing returns to their winningest track in search of eight victory at Road America and sixth of the 2002 CART FedEx season.

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (August 14, 2002) --- Heading into Elkhart Lake for the Grand Prix at Road America Featuring the Motorola 220, Newman/Haas Racing (NHR) looks to extend its Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) FedEx championship points lead and get back to the winning ways that characterized the team for the first half of the season. The nostalgic 4.048-mile permanent road course that is Road America, marks the 13th of 19 CART FedEx Series events for the 2002 season and stands out as a hotbed of competitive races for the team.

Established in 1983 as a Champ car operation, NHR's most successful track since that time has been Road America, including its first team victory in its inaugural year with driver Mario Andretti in only its sixth race. With seven wins, five poles, and 12 podium finishes here for NHR, the team hopes they can add to their Road America success and continue their competitiveness on road courses that picked up steam with data from this track last season and has been further developed during the 2002 Championship with drivers Cristiano da Matta and Christian Fittipaldi.

"On the race weekend (last year) we made a few changes and they indicated a good path to take on the car setup that actually put us in the position that we are today, that we are competitive on almost every track we go to," said da Matta. "I think the place where we started to figure everything out was in Elkhart Lake (last year) during the practice sessions."

This season alone, NHR has proved to be the most successful team on the CART circuit, especially on road and street courses as they attempt to capture their fourth Champ car championship in their 20th season. Of their 66 total team victories, 43 of those have come on road/street courses including da Matta's four road/street course victories out of five total wins so far this season.

With a captivating road and street course performance so far this season and a reign on top of the championship points race, da Matta is most likely the favorite again for this weekends event, but his biggest competition may come from the neighboring pit stall in teammate Fittipaldi.

Fittipaldi scored his first Champ car victory with NHR at Road America in 1999 and in seven races there, he has been a contender for a podium spot each time. Fittipaldi said, "I have always liked Road America - since the first day I drove there. It's one of my favorite tracks and we have always run well. The team has always given me a car that has worked well at Road America and it has certainly made my life easier."

Coming off a second place start and finish last weekend at Mid-Ohio along with running in the top three spots in each race for eight of the past eleven events this season, Fittipaldi's bid for the Championship is heating up and he is due for a return to the top of the podium. Road America is perhaps the track where he stands the best chance to accomplish that feat based on his past performance at the track, coupled with a strong showing on road courses from NHR. "As my first CART win came at Road America, it will always be a special place to me and I hope I can continue to run up front this weekend and get another win as well as give Lilly their first win in racing," noted Fittipaldi.

Making his eighth start at Road America, Fittipaldi is currently tied for sixth in the points race with former NHR teammate Michael Andretti with a total of 74 points. Another strong finish at Road America could move Fittipaldi and his No. 11 Lilly Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone up considerably in the points battle giving NHR a chance at a one-two finish for the CART FedEx championship.

At Road America, Fittipaldi, like NHR, has chalked up several consistent efforts. He was about to take over the lead late in the 2001 event, but contact with Michael Andretti caused Fittipaldi to stop on course and allow Bruno Junqueira to pass both cars for the win, while Fittipaldi was forced to settle for an 18th place finish. "The car in front of me was about to pit and I was going to be in the lead but Michael (Andretti) tried to pass me and we came together," Fittipaldi said of the 2001 event. "Of course we probably have different views but it was just a racing incident. He tried to get by me and I tried to stay in front and we touched and it allowed Bruno to pass both of us and take the win. Of course Michael was luckier than I was because he finished the race in second place and I stopped on course."

The CART FedEx Championship is hotly contested and DNF's (did not finish) by both Fittipaldi and da Matta, coupled by recent success of other teams has led to a tight points race with eight events to go. After his second place finish at the last race in Mid-Ohio, Fittipaldi pointed out those he felt would most challenge the team, "I think we will be strong in Elkhart Lake but I think the Player's Team will the cars to beat."

In 2000, Fittipaldi was in second place after starting eighth when his car experienced exhaust failure. In 1999 he was victorious at Road America and the year prior in 1998 he finished in third position despite race morning neck problems that forced him to seek pre-race medical assistance. In 1997, Fittipaldi finished just off the podium in the fourth spot despite electronics problems that intermittently limited his engine boost by 40 percent. His engine blew while in second place in 1996 during the closing laps while leader Al Unser Jr.'s engine blew as well on the final lap and Andretti moved up from third to take the win. In his rookie race here with Walker Racing in 1995, Fittipaldi was in third place when a late race caution flag came out and his engineer elected to have him stay on track despite the fact that the remainder of the field pitted. He dropped to eighth place after having to make a green flag stop.

Cristiano da Matta is also looking to run well at Road America after posting strong finishes at previous road and street course events this season. Da Matta has unquestionably been the driver to beat this season, but has fallen upon some rough times as of late with mechanical problems while leading in Cleveland and Vancouver and a costly off-track excursion while second in Mid-Ohio. After not scoring points for his Sunday efforts in the past three races, he is ready to make his first appearance in Winner's Circle at Road America - a track he finds both challenging and enjoyable.

"Road America is a long track," said da Matta. "It's just like the old style road course, which is very interesting to drive. It still has many, many fast corners. You know, you go to those more modern road courses the turns are slower, usually because of safety. Road America still has the fourth gear, fifth gear corners, and you know everybody likes that as well as the elevation changes. Whatever (kind of car) a driver takes there, they always like it because it has all types of corners. So there will always be some part of the turn that a driver will enjoy. For me, I enjoy it all. I think you have seen in the past, more drivers that weren't so good win races on the ovals and maybe super speedways, but if the driver wins a race in Elkhart Lake or Mid Ohio you can know for sure he's good."

Although he posted his top start and finish of his three races at Road America last season with his fifth place start and sixth place finish, he felt a higher finish was possible had extensive circumstances not presented themselves.

"It was a pretty strange race because we had that situation with the water running down the back straight and all," remembered da Matta. "The race was stopped and that cost us a lot because I was running fourth but pitted just before the race was stopped. I went all the way back to ninth and because everyone was allowed to top-off their fuel before the race was restarted it hurt us -- I remember that. We had to come back and recover our positions at that time. I came up behind de Ferran and just couldn't get around him, so I had to run the rest of the race behind him, and I had Helio that was just behind me. It was a tough battle between us three, and it was a fun race but I just wish I could have scored more points. You know, just outside the top five we are not happy. When we're within the top five we are a lot happier."

Road courses have earned da Matta a good portion - 99 -- of his 122 points and he hopes to begin a new string of strong finishes this weekend. Earlier this season he tied the record for most consecutive victories in the CART FedEx series at four - three of which were on road and street courses and has captured five poles - all coming on these types of tracks as well. Of his series high 469 laps led, 387 of them have come on road and street courses. All of these factors have attributed to the No. 6 Havoline Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone's place atop the championship point standings. Although he will not be satisfied on Sunday unless he scores a good portion of the points in Road America, his 27 point lead over second place Patrick Carpentier will see him leave Round 12 of 19 still at the top of the standings although his lead -- once as high as 50-points -- has shrunk, largely due to circumstances beyond his control.

"To win the championship, momentum is always important," said the Brazilian. "You have to score big points every race, not only one race or the other. You have to just be there every time. So not only winning races, but being there in the top five is the most important and what we're focusing on. Of course we always try to go for the race win, but it's not always possible."

Off-track competition still remains strong for NHR as Fittipaldi's Lilly crew retained their second place ranking in the Craftsman Pit Crew Challenge (CPCC) heading to Road America. The Havoline crew moved from third to fifth in the standings although they have earned the "wild card entry" for the shootout, by making the quickest stops in Chicago. At the CPCC shootout at end of the year, five teams will compete in the winner-take-all shootout when Craftsman will award a custom Waterford Crystal trophy and $50,000 in cash to the victors.

This Sunday's live broadcast of the CART Grand Prix of Road America Featuring the Motorola 220 will air live Sunday on the SPEED Channel at 3:00 p.m. ET. Friday provisional qualifying will air live on SPEED Channel at 5:00 p.m. ET, followed CART Friday Night later that evening on SPEED Channel at 10:30 p.m. ET. Saturday's final round of Champ Car qualifying is slated for 2:30 p.m. ET live on SPEED Channel.

-NHR-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Michael Andretti , Bruno Junqueira , Patrick Carpentier , Christian Fittipaldi , Mario Andretti , Cristiano da Matta
Teams ART Grand Prix , HART