HOMESTEAD, Fla. - What a difference a year makes. At this time in 1999, the question everyone was asking was: Who is Juan Montoya? Twelve months later the question has changed to: Can anyone stop Juan Montoya? Now that everyone...
HOMESTEAD, Fla. - What a difference a year makes. At this time in 1999, the question everyone was asking was: Who is Juan Montoya? Twelve months later the question has changed to: Can anyone stop Juan Montoya?
Now that everyone knows Team Target's defending CART champion, several additional questions remain to be answered during the 2000 CART FedEx Championship Series. For example, can Jimmy Vasser, who placed ninth in the series point standings in 1999, return to the form that earned him the CART title in 1996 , a third-place finish in 1997 and second-place showing in 1998? How will the team perform without long-time engineer Morris Nunn, who formed his own CART team? And, finally, how will Team Target perform after changing from Honda to Toyota engines and from Reynard to Lola chassis?
Team owner Chip Ganassi is anxious to find out the answer to these and many other questions as his team begins pursuit of its fifth consecutive CART title at the upcoming Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami. "I don't think I've ever been as excited for race No. 1 as I am this year," said Ganassi, who is entering his 13th season as a team owner in the CART series. "Seeing the results during testing, I'm confident that our move to Toyota and Lola can help keep us ahead of the game. Jimmy has been looking great, and Juan gets to race on this track (Miami-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex) for the second time. It will be nice to get this first race out of the way so we can finally talk about something other than our busy off-season."
Ganassi isn't the only member of Team Target who is excited for the Grand Prix of Miami. Second-year driver Montoya is anxious for his title defense to begin.
"Everyone has expectations of the defending champion, so now if we don't do well, it's because we are struggling, but last year it was because I was a rookie," said Montoya, who claimed seven victories and seven pole positions in 1999. "This is a new season and I think the team has a chance to be even better than last year. But I try not to think about being the champion. Last year was last year. I need to take what I learned and go out and do better in 2000."
In addition to adjusting to his new role as defending champion, Montoya has had to adjust to a new package. The Firestone tires remain, but his 2000 Champ Car now feautres a Toyota engine and a Lola chassis.
"I think we're in a good position to do well," Montoya said. "The Lola has been responsive and competitive, and Toyota has its act together. We've had the power in testing, and the car has good driveability. We're just in the first steps of progress with this package, but I'm pleased. Lola is 100 percent behind this car, Toyota is 100 percent behind this car and the whole team is 100 percent behind this car, so now we've got to maximize what we've got."
Ganassi and Montoya's enthusiasm has also spread to Vasser, who enters his sixth season with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. Vasser is confident that changes to the car and to personnel will help propel him toward the top of the standings in 2000.
"I'm ready for this season," said Vasser, who earned seven top-five finishes in 1999. "We've addressed the problems we had last year and I'm looking forward to all the new challenges -- the clean slate with the engine program and the chassis. I think both of these things are going to be advantageous to me, and I'm ready to go."
Vasser, 34, believes he has several good years of racing ahead of him and that he can still challenge for the title.
"I'm a year older and a year smarter," he said. "It's always nice to put bad things behind you, and last year was bad in many ways. Testing has gone better than expected and we just need to settle down and get down to business. Can Target/Chip Ganassi Racing win a fifth straight championship...who knows?"
That, of course, is the big question everyone wants answered. Team Target will offer hints on Sunday, March 26 at the Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami.