Chevron driver da Matta and Lilly driver Fittipaldi head to California Speedway for the 500 and both aim to be the first two-time winner at the track and bring NHR its third consecutive victory here. FONTANA, Calif. (October 31, 2002) --- Of ...
Chevron driver da Matta and Lilly driver Fittipaldi head to California Speedway for the 500 and both aim to be the first two-time winner at the track and bring NHR its third consecutive victory here.
FONTANA, Calif. (October 31, 2002) --- Of Newman/Haas Racing's (NHR) 23 wins on oval tracks, five have come in 500-mile races with two of those coming in 2000 and 2001 at The California Speedway, site of this weekend's The 500 Presented by Toyota CART FedEx Championship race. Both 2000 winner Christian Fittipaldi and 2001 winner Cristiano da Matta will attempt to be the first two-time winner at this track and bring Newman/Haas Racing a 50 percent win average here in the six year history of this race as well as the 69th victory for the team.
"To win a 500-mile race is difficult but to win back-to-back 500-mile races is probably more difficult but that's our goal and the Chevron team has the potential to do it," said da Matta, who clinched the 2002 CART FedEx Championship with three races to go in the season in Miami. "It's good to be the defending winner of the race and know that Newman/Haas Racing has won the past two events in Fontana but 500-mile races are not only about having a good car, they also involve a little luck. You need to not only have a reliable car for 500 miles you also need to stay out of trouble. The Toyota-Lola has been a strong combination all season and we believe we will be competitive again this year in Fontana. This is our first 500-mile race since winning The 500 last year but we have no reason to think we won't be strong here."
While two wins and one third place finish in the past five events at 2.029-mile, high-banked Superspeedway would be considered good results for a grueling 500-mile race with three hours of driving at high speeds, NHR drivers have actually been capable of winning every year since the race was added to the schedule. In total, NHR has led a combined 289 laps at this track with current drivers da Matta (53 laps) and Fittipaldi (87) as well as Michael Andretti (149). Up until this season, when CART instituted new rules designed for limiting fuel economy races, recent 500-miles races were ones where most drivers attempted not to lead and risk using too much fuel until the final stage of the race. This season the 500-mile race will be even more demanding as drivers will run at 100 percent of their ability for the duration of the event.
"The 500 is always a tough race because of the length and strain on equipment," said 2000 winner Christian Fittipaldi, whose most recent victory came on this track. "For the driver it is more of a mental challenge than physical but you are totally drained at the end of the race because of the level of attention for 500-miles. Things happen so quickly on a Superspeedway so you have to give 110 percent of yourself the entire race. This year will be even more important because of the mandatory pit stops. There will not be any fuel economy runs and everyone will be driving 110 percent, 110 percent of the time instead of trying to conserve fuel."
The series has always put on a competitive event at this track and the 2001 event featured a Champ Car record 73 lead changes among 19 different drivers, crumbling the previous Champ Car record of 62 established at Michigan in 1998. This is made even more compelling given the event was shortened by 30 laps due to darkness.
In the inaugural CART event here in 1997 Michael Andretti led 36 laps in 1997 before his car overheated. He led 44 in 1998 before he crashed while second and led 62 in 1999 until an oil fire ended his race while leading. In 2000 he led seven laps before he was caught in a crash at the front of the field to end his career with Newman/Haas Racing. Christian Fittipaldi led five laps in 1997, six in 1998, 37 in 1999, 35 in 2000 en route to victory after also setting the fastest race lap and led four in 2001. Cristiano da Matta led 53 laps en route to his first 500-mile victory in 2001.
While the team has two wins and a third place finish here, Fittipaldi also set the fastest race lap in route to victory in 2000. One achievement that has eluded the team at this track is winning the top starting spot. In 2001, da Matta matched the team's highest qualifying spot of second place earned by Michael Andretti in 2000. Christian Fittipaldi's top start here was third place in 2000. Of NHR's 70 pole positions, 15 have come on ovals with six of those taking place in 500-mile races (1994 - Mansell, Michigan 500; 1993 - Ma. Andretti, Michigan 500; 1992 - Ma. Andretti, Michigan 500; 1987 - Ma. Andretti, Indy 500 & Pocono 500; 1984 - Ma. Andretti, Michigan 500). Although NHR has won the most poles of any team this season, they have all come on road and street courses. In fact, the team's most recent pole position on an oval was won by Fittipaldi who earned the top starting spot in his homeland of Brazil for the 1999 Rio de Janeiro event. With a team history of preparing competitive cars for this event, both drivers have a shot at the feat this weekend.
"We came close to winning the pole last year but started second," said da Matta, whose seventh and most recent pole came at the previous event in Australia. "We have won seven poles so far this season and it has been an indication of the hard work the engineers have put into our program but to win the pole in Fontana would be nice because Newman/Haas hasn't won a pole on an oval since Christian won the pole in Rio in 1999."
Four of the five previous winners of this race are active competitors of the 2002 championship although only three will be able to attempt to be the first two-time winner here as 1999 winner Adrian Fernandez was injured in the previous event in Australia and Max Papis will substitute for him in the race. Jimmy Vasser joins Fittipaldi and da Matta as the only previous winners in this year's event as inaugural winner Mark Blundell has retired from Champ car driving.
Historically speaking, NHR has been competitive on Superspeedways and oval tracks in general. They have won 23 of their 68 victories on oval tracks, five of which have come in 500-mile races (2001 - da Matta, Fontana 500; 2000 - Fittipaldi, Fontana 500; 1993 - Mario Andretti, Michigan 500; 1989 - Michael Andretti, Michigan 500; 1984 - Mario Andretti, Michigan 500). The most recent oval race held - the CART Grand Prix of Chicago -- was won by da Matta in June and the team is looking forward to adding a victory on a Superspeedway, the fourth and final type of track the series competes on annually.
Although he has already clinched the 2002 CART Championship, da Matta and his Chevron crew have set their sites on not only matching but surpassing the most wins in a season mark of eight by Michael Andretti (and NHR in 1991) and Al Unser Jr. (1994). Andretti accomplished the feat in his eighth season in the series and Unser Jr. did it in his 12th full season while da Matta is in the midst of his fourth season. After he won his seventh pole position of the season in record setting fashion in Australia, da Matta looked a good bet to match the record although consistent rainfall on race day dictated the victory by rookie Mario Dominguez.
"Our goal since winning the championship has been to beat the record for most wins in a season and to do that now we have to win both of the races left this season," said da Matta, who will participate in a "Walk of Fame" ceremony on Saturday morning to commemorate his 2001 victory here. "We had a good car in Australia and felt like we could have matched the record but Mother Nature wasn't working with us."
Like da Matta, Fittipaldi is confident of NHR's competitiveness at this track. His 2000 victory here bettered his previous best at a 500-mile race of second place in the 1995 Indianapolis 500 where he was also named "Rookie of the Year." His goal in Fontana is to not only win the event but to also add a large chunk of Championship points to his total and move from his fifth place ranking to as high as second in the final two events of the season.
"Newman/Haas Racing won the last two events at California Speedway and we led the race at some point in each of the years it has been on the CART schedule so we know we have a good baseline set-up," said Fittipaldi. "There are two more races left in the Championship and everyone is trying to finish as high as possible in the year-end standings. A second place finish looked possible in Australia and we would have gone into the Fontana (Calif.) race in third place but instead we finished 11th and have our work cut out for us to catch (fourth place) Patrick and (third place) Dario in the standings. If we can finish the race in Fontana, we have a good shot at winning. That would not only be great because we want to win a race before the season is over but it would also help us in the Championship."
Also at stake this weekend is the outcome of the season-long Craftsman Pit Crew Challenge, which debuted in 1999, that recognizes the efforts of motorsports' unsung heroes, the mechanics who build, maintain and service the Champ Cars. CART teams compete all year to see who has the best crew on pit road. Throughout the season, all pit stops are timed - less time in the pits means more points. The Chevron and Lilly crews will go head-to-head against the crews of Jimmy Vasser, Bruno Junqueira and Alex Tagliani in an hour-long competition on Friday at 3:30 p.m. for a winner-take-all prize of $50,000 cash, a $15,000 Waterford Crystal Trophy and bragging rights for the winning pit crew.
Another value-added benefit for all ticket-holders will be a musical performance by The FIXX and Berlin followed by a fireworks display which will take place at California Speedway's infield entertainment center from 5:00 - 7:30 p.m. PT on Saturday evening.
Television coverage for The 500 will kick-off with CART Friday Night at 10:30 p.m. Saturday's qualifying session will air live at 2:30 p.m. and The 500 Presented by Toyota will take place Sunday at 3:30 p.m. All programs will air on SPEED Channel and all TV times are Eastern.