DETROIT (September 13, 2000) - As the closest points race in FedEx Championship Series history heads toward a spectacular climax, the chief competitors are preparing to square off in the "bullring" during the final short-oval event of the ...
DETROIT (September 13, 2000) - As the closest points race in FedEx Championship Series history heads toward a spectacular climax, the chief competitors are preparing to square off in the "bullring" during the final short-oval event of the season.
Competition in the Motorola 300 at Gateway International Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, live, ESPN2) figures to be as close in the chase for The Vanderbilt Cup - symbol of the FedEx Championship Series championship - as it is on the 1.27-mile oval located just outside St. Louis in Madison, Ill. Heading into the 17th of 20 rounds, the top-six drivers can be blanketed by a mere 17 points, by far the closest separation in the 22-year history of the series.
Prior to this season, the closest separation between the top six championship contenders through 16 events came in 1996 when 50 points divided eventual champion Jimmy Vasser from sixth-place Gil de Ferran. In no year other than that has the margin been closer than 67 points (1995) in a season that included at least 16 events.
De Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske sits atop the championship standings for the first time in his six-year career following his runner-up performance to teammate Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda Reynard) in Round 16 at Laguna Seca Raceway last weekend. De Ferran, with four top-five finishes in his past five starts, overtook Michael Andretti (Big Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Ford Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing - who went scoreless at Laguna - and now holds a 132-126 lead heading to Gateway.
Clustered closely behind the two principals is a quartet including Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green, third with 122 points; Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Patrick Racing Ford Reynard) of Patrick Racing, fourth with 118; rookie Kenny Brack (Shell Ford Reynard) of Team Rahal, fifth with 116; and Roberto Moreno (Visteon Ford Reynard) of Patrick Racing, sixth with 115.
Adding further spice to the drama is the fact that the top three contenders for the championship have all posted short-oval victories within the past two seasons. Andretti is the defending Motorola 300 champion and also owns a runner-up finish in 1998.
De Ferran's Gateway resume includes a podium finish of third in 1997. He also won the first short-oval event of this season, bringing Marlboro Team Penske its historic 100th victory at Nazareth Speedway.
Tracy won a short-oval event at Milwaukee last season and is also a former winner at Gateway, having driven to victory in 1997.
Among the remaining three championship hopefuls, Moreno's fourth-place finish last year while substituting for the injured Mark Blundell stands as the best. Fernandez' best performance was eighth in 1997 while Brack, a rookie, has not yet competed at Gateway while a member of the FedEx Championship Series.
This year, for the first time in FedEx Championship Series history, all cars ride on Firestone Firehawks, the Official Tire of CART.
The spirited points battle will add considerable drama to the final four events of the FedEx Championship Series season, which concludes with the Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota on October 29 at California Speedway. For the third straight year, the season finale will pay its winner $1 million, thanks to a partnership between Marlboro, Toyota, CART and California Speedway. An additional $1 million will be awarded to the driver who emerges from the season finale as series champion.
Following the Motorola 300, its third event in as many weeks, the FedEx Championship Series takes a weekend off before resuming with the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston, Sunday, Oct. 1, on the streets of downtown Houston, Tex.
* Gil de Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske has recorded top-five finishes in four of his past five starts to take over the FedEx Championship Series points lead for the first time in his six-year career. Included in the run are podium results of second at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca, and third at Chicago. He also finished fifth at Vancouver and owns victories this season at Nazareth and Portland. His 132 championship points place him six ahead of Michael Andretti (Big Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Ford Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing in the championship hunt. De Ferran also owns 13 top-five qualifying efforts in 16 starts this season, including pole positions at Homestead, Long Beach and Mid-Ohio. He is the first Marlboro Team Penske driver to lead the championship since Paul Tracy following Round 11 at Toronto in 1997, and he leads it later in the season than any Penske driver since Al Unser Jr. won the 1994 championship.
* Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Patrick Racing Ford Reynard) of Patrick Racing has scored championship points in 13 of his past 14 starts, beginning with a victory at Brazil. The run also includes podium finishes of second at Toronto and Road America, and third at Vancouver. Currently fourth in the championship with 118 points, he is just four behind third-place Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green (122 points) and eight behind second-place Michael Andretti (126 points).
* Rookie Kenny Brack (Shell Ford Reynard) of Team Rahal has scored championship points in 12 of his past 14 FedEx Championship Series starts and has recorded eight top-five finishes in that span, including podium results of second at Cleveland and third at Nazareth and Road America. He stands fifth in the championship with 116 points and holds a commanding 116-46 lead over Oriol Servia (Telefonica Toyota Reynard) of PPI Motorsports in his quest for the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year Award.
* Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green has finished on the podium in the last two FedEx Championship Series events and also has won two of the last three pole positions. He was runner-up to teammate Paul Tracy at Vancouver and finished third last week at Laguna Seca. His poles came in back-to-back races at Road America and Vancouver. He has moved into eighth place in the championship with 92 points, his first appearance in the top-10 since standing 10th following Round 8 at Portland.
* Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske has won two of the past four FedEx Championship Series events - Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca - to tie Paul Tracy for the series lead with three victories this season. Castroneves, who also won at Detroit, has become the first Brazilian driver to win as many as three FedEx Championship Series events in a single season since Emerson Fittipaldi won three in 1993. He and Fittipaldi, who did it three times, are the only Brazilian drivers to have won as many as three events in a single season. Castroneves, who also owns pole positions at Portland, Toronto and Laguna Seca this season, has moved into seventh place in the championship with 103 points, the first time in his three-year career that he has topped 100 championship points.
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
* Defending Motorola 300 champion Michael Andretti owns podium finishes in two of his three career starts at Gateway International Raceway. Included is a runner-up effort in 1998 in addition to his victory last year. He has led more laps at the venue (290) than any other driver, including 66 in 1997 and race-high totals of 133 in '98 and 91 in '99.
* Jimmy Vasser (Target Toyota Lola) of Target Chip Ganassi Racing owns a pair of top-five finishes in three career starts - fourth in 1998 and fifth in '97. He has led a combined 78 laps in his career at Gateway (36 in '97 and 42 in '98). He started on the outside pole in 1998 when the starting grid was based on practice times due to a rainout of qualifying.
* Gil de Ferran owns top-six finishes in two of three career appearances at Gateway, topped by a podium result of third in 1997. He also finished sixth in 1998.
* Helio Castroneves matched a then career-best effort with a runner-up performance to Michael Andretti last year. He also finished seventh during his rookie season of 1998 to give him points-paying results in both of his career appearances at Gateway.
* Juan Montoya (Target Toyota Lola) of Target Chip Ganassi Racing is the defending Motorola 300 polesitter and has been the dominant driver on ovals during the entire FedEx Championship Series season. He owns two oval victories - Milwaukee and Michigan - as well as poles at Japan, Nazareth Milwaukee and Chicago. He has qualified on the front row for six of seven oval starts this season and has led a series-high 632 laps on ovals, more than five times the total of Gil de Ferran, who stands second with 109 laps led on ovals. Montoya has led at least 21 laps at six of seven oval starts this season, and has led more than 100 at four of those, including Japan (172), Nazareth (110), Milwaukee (179) and Chicago (111).
* Honda has won the past four FedEx Championship Series events, getting two victories each from Paul Tracy (Road America and Vancouver) and Helio Castroneves (Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca). Honda owns a series-high eight victories this season and has moved to a one-point lead over Ford, 269-268, in the battle for the CART Manufacturer's Championship. Honda, which has won three of the past four CART Manufacturer's titles (1996, '98, '99), has received its other victories this year from Tracy at Long Beach, Gil de Ferran at Nazareth and Portland, and Castroneves at Detroit.
* Toyota-powered drivers have won the past three FedEx Championship Series events contested on ovals, getting victories from Juan Montoya at Milwaukee and Michigan, and Cristiano da Matta (Pioneer/MCI WorldCom Toyota Reynard) of PPI Motorsports at Chicago. Those three victories represent the first for Toyota in the engine manufacturer's five years of FedEx Championship Series competition.
* A Toyota-powered victory this weekend would give each CART engine manufacturer a win in the four years of FedEx Championship Series competition at Gateway International Raceway. Paul Tracy won the inaugural Motorola 300 in a Mercedes in 1997, followed by Alex Zanardi in a Honda in '98 and Michael Andretti in a Ford last year.
* Gateway International Raceway has special meaning to the Firestone tire oval-racing program even though the significant event was a race the tire manufacturer did not win. The inaugural race at Gateway, in 1997 was won by Paul Tracy, who was on Goodyear tires. Since that result, Firestone has won 22 of 23 FedEx Championship Series oval races, including the last 19 in a row. The first dozen wins in the current streak of 19 came against direct competition with Goodyear before Firestone assumed sole-supplier status this year.
* Helio Castroneves' victory at Laguna Seca allowed Reynard to clinch its sixth consecutive CART Constructor's Championship, giving it an insurmountable 323-235 lead over Lola with a maximum of 88 points available in the season's four remaining races. Reynard has captured every CART Constructor's Championship since 1995. "We are delighted to wrap up this title with four races to go," said Mark Smithson, Managing Director of Reynard Motorsport. The teams running Reynard chassis and all the staff at Reynard in North America and the UK have been essential to our success, and we thank them for this. We aim to continue winning this title for many years ahead."
ON THE AIR
* Qualifying for the Motorola 300 will air 1:30 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2. "CART 2Day" airs 10:30 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2, while ESPN2's live race broadcast begins 2:30 p.m. ET. Sunday. The race will also air live on the CART Radio Network and on CART's official website, at www.cart.com .