Plenty Still at Stake as FedEx Championship Series Ends Season with Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota DETROIT (October 26, 1998) - Sure, the FedEx Championship Series title has already been locked away by Alex Zanardi. But that doesn't mean there...
Plenty Still at Stake as FedEx Championship Series Ends Season with Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota
DETROIT (October 26, 1998) - Sure, the FedEx Championship Series title has already been locked away by Alex Zanardi. But that doesn't mean there is any shortage of storylines as the series prepares for its 1998 season finale, Sunday's Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota at California Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET, live, ESPN):
* Start with a purse of $1 million to the winner of the grueling 250-lap, 500-mile test. It marks the first time a million dollar winner's purse has been offered since The Inaugural U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway in 1996. Second place pays $60,000, as it does at every FedEx Championship Series event, so the competition to get and stay in front figures to be intense.
* That intensity figures to be mixed with a bit of sentimentality, however, as the FedEx Championship Series bids farewell to one of the most remarkable drivers in its history, Bobby Rahal. Rahal (Miller Lite Reynard Ford), along with Rick Mears the only drivers in FedEx Championship Series history to win three series titles, brings his 17-year driving career to a conclusion this weekend, although he will remain active in the series as a car owner.
Sunday's start will be the CART-record 264th of Rahal's career, which includes 24 victories, fourth all-time; 18 pole positions, fifth all-time, and championships in 1986, '87 and '92. No driver in FedEx Championship Series history has been as successful in the separate roles of driver and owner as Bobby Rahal.
"Bobby is a business leader with our company and our series," said Andrew Craig, CART Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. "He has brought leadership, insight and great style to our company. He has brought statesman-like qualities to our board of directors and our series overall. He has been a true champion both on and off the track and we, at CART, salute him for a legendary career that will continue as a car owner."
* Rahal's retirement isn't the only memorable departure from the FedEx Championship Series this weekend. Two-time and reigning champion Zanardi (Target Reynard Honda) makes his final start for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, for whom he won PPG Cups in 1997 and '98 while compiling the best winning percentage in FedEx Championship Series history, 15 victories in 50 starts (.300).
Zanardi, who already owns FedEx Championship Series single-season records for podium finishes (14) and PPG Cup points (271 through 18 events, 250 through 17, 234 through 16), could tie another series standard with a victory at California. It would be his eighth of the season, tying the record shared by Michael Andretti (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Swift Ford) who established the mark in 1991, and Al Unser Jr. (Marlboro Penske Mercedes), who tied it three years later. Zanardi will be making his first career appearance at Fontana, having missed last year's race due to a mild concussion sustained in separate practice accidents.
* As Zanardi departs the FedEx Championship Series, an heir apparent looms on the horizon in Dario Franchitti (KOOL Reynard Honda). Franchitti has won three of the past five events - Road America, Vancouver and Houston - and owns top-four finishes in the other two, a fourth at Laguna Seca and second at Australia.
Franchitti has scored 93 of a maximum 110 PPG Cup points in that span and has moved past Jimmy Vasser (Target Reynard Honda) and into second place in the championship points race. Franchitti owns a 160-148 lead over Vasser heading into the final event, and could clinch series runner-up honors, and the $500,000 bonus from PPG which accompanies that distinction, with a finish of fourth or better at California Speedway. Like Zanardi, Franchitti will be making his first career appearance at the venue. He did not compete there while driving for Hogan Racing during his rookie season of 1997.
* As the second FedEx Championship Series event of the season to be contested on a superspeedway, the Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota marks the return of the Handford Device, the aerodynamic piece fitted to the rear wing of Champ Cars to help contain speeds at superspeedway events. When it debuted at the July 26 U.S. 500 Presented by Toyota at Michigan Speedway, the Handford Device helped produce a race which featured a CART-record 62 lead changes - including one in each of the final five laps - before Greg Moore (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes) claimed the victory.
A 500-mile sweep hasn't been accomplished in the FedEx Championship Series since 1991, when Mears won at Indianapolis and Michigan Speedway. With the added incentive of the $1 million winner's purse, Moore figures to have an abundance of rivals in his pursuit of the Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota title.
Begin with Andretti, who owns two 500-mile victories in his career, but none since 1989. Even so, he has had one of the fastest cars in the field at a number of oval races this year, as evidenced by his series-high total of 376 laps led in oval competition. Andretti led 62 laps en route to a sixth-place finish at this year's U.S. 500 Presented by Toyota, one fewer than Zanardi's race-high total of 63.
Vasser brings an impressive 500-mile resume to California Speedway which includes a victory in The Inaugural U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway in 1996, podium finishes at Fontana last year (second) and Michigan this season (third) and pole positions for both The Inaugural U.S. 500 and Marlboro 500 at Michigan in 1996. That success could assist him in his bid to overtake Franchitti, whose best finish in two career 500-mile starts is 19th at Michigan last year.
Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Labatt Reynard Ford) also remains in contention for runner-up honors in the championship. With a career-high 142 points, he trails Franchitti by 18. Fernandez won the pole for the U.S. 500 Presented by Toyota at Michigan in July.
Marlboro Team Penske drivers Unser Jr. and Andre Ribeiro (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) can draw on previous 500-mile successes as the team continues to chase its 100th career Champ Car victory. Unser Jr. owns three career victories at the distance, including the fastest 500-mile race in auto racing history, the 1990 Marlboro 500 at Michigan Speedway, in which he averaged 189.727 mph. Ribeiro won the 1996 Marlboro 500 at Michigan and has led at least one lap in five of his past six 500-mile starts, including a race-high 114 at California Speedway last year while driving for the Tasman Motorsports Group.
California Speedway would be an ideal place for the PacWest Racing Group to recapture the magic which resulted in four victories and three pole positions last year. Drivers Mauricio Gugelmin (Hollywood PacWest Mercedes) and Mark Blundell (Motorola PacWest Mercedes) double-teamed the California Speedway oval in CART's inaugural appearance last year as Gugelmin claimed the pole position at an eye-popping 240.942 miles per hour - which remains the fastest official lap in auto racing history - while Blundell won the race, finishing 0.847 seconds ahead of Vasser.
Scott Pruett (Visteon Reynard Ford) owns one of his two career victories at 500 miles, at Michigan Speedway in 1995. He also owns a pole at Michigan in 1997 and, with a career-best 120 PPG Cup points, trails Moore by only four in the chase for fifth place in the championship.
Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Special Reynard Honda) led 26 laps at Michigan in July and was running a strong second and contending for a victory with 10 laps remaining when engine problems forced his retirement. Bryan Herta (Shell Reynard Ford) broke through this season with his first career FedEx Championship Series victory at Laguna Seca; he comes to California three PPG Cup points short of the first 100-point season of his five-year career.
Paul Tracy (KOOL Reynard Honda) has never won a 500-mile event in eight years in the FedEx Championship Series; he does, however, own five victories on ovals, and led 22 laps this season at Michigan.
Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Swift Ford) and Richie Hearn (Budweiser/Ralphs Swift Ford) have achieved career highlights in 500-mile events. Fittipaldi finished a career-best second at Indianapolis during his rookie season of 1995. Hearn, meanwhile, qualified a career-best third, led 11 laps and finished a career-best fifth at Michigan in July.
The Arciero-Wells Racing tandem of Robby Gordon (MCI/Panasonic Duskin Reynard Toyota) and Max Papis (MCI Reynard Toyota) has reason for optimism heading into the finale as well. Gordon finished a strong eighth there last year as a replacement for Franchitti in his only FedEx Championship Series appearance of the season. Papis, who replaces Rahal at Team Rahal next season, has put together a strong second-half performance which includes six points-paying finishes in his past 10 starts.
Rookies Tony Kanaan (LCI Reynard Honda) and Helio Castro-Neves (Alumax Aluminum Reynard Mercedes) make their first career FedEx Championship Series appearances at California Speedway, although both competed in a PPG-Dayton Indy Lights Championship event there last year. Kanaan, this year's Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year Award winner, finished seventh and clinched the Indy Lights championship in the process while Castro-Neves locked up series runner-up honors with a fourth-place finish.
Michel Jourdain Jr. (Herdez/Viva Mexico! Reynard Ford) used a career-best fifth-place qualifying effort at California Speedway last year as a springboard to the Most Improved Driver honor by vote of his peers. Patrick Carpentier (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes) looks to transfer the success he has enjoyed on short ovals this season, which has resulted in pole positions at Nazareth and Milwaukee, to the superspeedways. He missed last year's event due to a mild concussion sustained in a practice accident.
Rookie JJ Lehto (Hogan Motor Leasing, Inc. Reynard Mercedes) comes to California Speedway off a career-best fifth-place finish at Australia. Arnd Meier (Hasseroder/J.A.G. Lola Ford) and Dennis Vitolo (SmithKline Beecham Reynard Ford) make their second career appearances at California Speedway while rookies Alex Barron (Castrol-Degree Reynard Toyota) and Vincenzo Sospiri (Castrol-Degree Reynard Toyota) of All American Racers make their first.
Qualifying for the Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota will air 2 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2. "CART 2Day" airs 3 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2, one-half hour prior to ESPN's live race broadcast.
The FedEx Championship Series caps off its 1998 season with its annual awards banquet, Monday, Nov. 2 at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.