CHAMPCAR/CART: Fontana: Series event preview

CART FedEx Championship Series drivers head to unpredictable California Speedway for the 500 Presented by Toyota. INDIANAPOLIS (October 30, 2002) - Taking things from one extreme to another, the CART FedEx Championship Series will head from an...

CART FedEx Championship Series drivers head to unpredictable California Speedway for the 500 Presented by Toyota.

INDIANAPOLIS (October 30, 2002) - Taking things from one extreme to another, the CART FedEx Championship Series will head from an Australian race that was run in formation due to extremely rainy conditions to an event at the 2.029-mile California Speedway where anyone in the paddock could come away with a win in this weekend's The 500 Presented by Toyota.

The much-maligned event last week where CART officials were handcuffed by the inability to postpone the Honda Indy 300 will be a distant memory after what should be a thrilling race over 250 laps of the two-mile Fontana oval where CART cars have been making headlines ever since the facility opened in 1997.

California Speedway has been one of the raciest circuits on the CART schedule since the inaugural event in '97 and was at its unpredictable best a year ago when 19 drivers took their turn at the front in a race that featured a CART-record 73 lead changes before Cristiano da Matta (#1 Chevron Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) took the victory. The previous season saw two-time series champion Gil de Ferran set the world closed-course speed record with a lap of 241.428 mph, eclipsing the mark of 240.942 mph set by Mauricio Gugelmin in CART's first trip to Fontana in '97.

The track gave CART fans their first glimpse of what was to come this season when 2002 series champion da Matta took the season-ending 500-miler last year, leading Max Papis (#51 Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) over the line under a caution flag caused by Scott Dixon's (#44 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) late-race crash. Da Matta will be back not only to try and become CART's first two-time California Speedway winner but also to try and put his name in the record books with what would be an eighth race win this year. An eighth victory in the 2002 season would tie Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti (#39 Motorola Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) as the only drivers to win eight races in a single season.

Papis will also be back to try and make up for finishing second in a race where he led an event-high 54 laps last year as he will replace the injured Adrian Fernandez in the Fernandez Racing Honda/Lola at Fontana. Papis will replace Fernandez for the second time this season - he sat in for Fernandez at Mid-Ohio after Adrian's Vancouver accident - as the owner/driver will miss the California race after suffering a neck injury in the first-lap crash in Australia. Ironically, Papis also finished second in the 1999 Fontana race, coming in behind race-winner Fernandez.

But there will more than records and revenge on the minds of CART's finest this weekend as seven drivers still have a shot at finishing the year as the series runner-up, a spot that is worth $500,000 to the second-place driver. As he has for most of the season, Bruno Junqueira (#4 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) holds the second spot in the standings, although he lost some of his advantage after finishing 14th last weekend at Australia and leads Dario Franchitti (#27 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) by nine points heading into the year's final two events. Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier (#32 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) each helped their causes last week, Franchitti by placing seventh while Carpentier collected 16 points for finishing second.

Right behind Carpentier in the standings sits a driver that is no stranger to success at Fontana as Christian Fittipaldi (#11 Lilly Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) holds down the fifth spot. Fittipaldi earned his last race win when he took the checkered flag in the 2000 event and had scored points in every CART event at the two-mile California Speedway before finishing 13th a year ago. Fittipaldi had qualified fifth and led four laps in the latter half of last year's race before ending the race out of the points.

Last season's polesitter Alex Tagliani (#33 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) is another driver that still has his eyes on the second-place spot in the season standings, and comes to a Fontana track where he has finished sixth and third respectively in his only two trips to the Inland Empire.

Mario Dominguez (#55 Herdez Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) will be making his first Champ Car start on the Fontana oval after winning his first CART event last weekend, but has a good amount of experience on the high-banked oval after running in the Dayton Indy Lights series events at Fontana. Dominguez could lock up the Jim Trueman Rookie-of-the-Year award by scoring five championship points this weekend, making him the first Mexican driver to win the top rookie award since Bernard Jourdain claimed the honor in 1989.

Another former Fontana winner will be looking to keep Ford-Cosworth's winning streak alive as '98 winner Jimmy Vasser (#8 Shell Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) returns to a track where he has never qualified worse than ninth. Vasser qualified in the front row in each of the first two events at Fontana, placing second in '97 before winning the '98 race. His Team Rahal stablemate Michel Jourdain Jr. (#9 Gigante Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) will look to extend his season-long point-scoring streak after his 10th-place run in Australia gave him points in his 17th consecutive event.

Kenny Brack (#12 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) has been one of the most effective qualifiers on the circuit this season and has started in the top three rows in each of the last six events, and used that to score himself a fourth-place run last weekend. Brack could become the first driver since Al Unser Jr. to win as many as four races in one season and fail to win in the next year, although he is third in the series in laps led with 256 and has been saddled with eight DNFs this season, one fewer than league leader Tora Takagi (#5 Pioneer/Denso Special Toyota/Reynard/Bridgestone).

Interestingly, Fontana may be the only track where CART's all-time victory leader has not had any success. A winner of 42 Champ Car events, Andretti's seventh-place finish a year ago earned him his first-ever Fontana points although he had qualified no worse than seventh in any of his previous four visits before last season. Last year, Andretti reversed the trend, qualifying 13th before leading two laps and placing seventh.

Tony Kanaan (#10 Pioneer/WorldCom Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) is reprising his late-season charge from a year ago and posted his fourth top-five finish in the last eight races when he took fifth in Australia. The Mo Nunn Racing team struggled to get on the board in the first part of the year but has rebounded and is just 13 points out of the top 10 in the season standings.

The 500 Presented by Toyota will take place Sunday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time and will be broadcast live on SPEED Channel. Championship points will be awarded to the leader of Saturday's qualifying session as well, a session that can be seen live on SPEED Channel at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time.

Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc. (NYSE: MPH) owns, operates and markets the CART FedEx Championship Series. Newly-crowned 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series champion Cristiano da Matta is among the open-wheel stars competing with teams such as Newman/Haas Racing, Player's/Forsythe Racing, Team Rahal, Fernández Racing, Patrick Racing, Herdez Competition, Mo Nunn Racing, Walker Racing and others. CART Champ Cars are thoroughbred racing machines that reach speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, showcasing the technical expertise of manufacturers such as Ford Motor Company, Lola Cars, Reynard Motorsport and Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire, LLC. The 19-race 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series will be broadcast by new television partners, CBS, FOX and SPEED Channel. CART also owns and operates its top development series, the CART Toyota Atlantic Championship. Learn more about CART's open-wheel racing series at www.cart.com.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Bruno Junqueira , Max Papis , Adrian Fernandez , Patrick Carpentier , Alex Tagliani , Christian Fittipaldi , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Mauricio Gugelmin , Tora Takagi , Kenny Brack , Mario Dominguez , Bernard Jourdain , Cristiano da Matta , Michel Jourdain , Mo Nunn