1997 Grand Prix of Monterey Laguna Seca (September 9, 1998) -- Having conquered his FedEx Championship Series rivals for a second consecutive season, Alex Zanardi continues his campaign to join the immortals of Championship Auto Racing Teams ...
1997 Grand Prix of Monterey
Laguna Seca (September 9, 1998) -- Having conquered his FedEx Championship Series rivals for a second consecutive season, Alex Zanardi continues his campaign to join the immortals of Championship Auto Racing Teams history in Sunday's Texaco/Havoline 300 (noon ET, live, ESPN), feature event of the Honda Grand Prix of Monterey at Laguna Seca Raceway.
Zanardi (Target Reynard Honda) clinched his second consecutive PPG Cup - and the $1 million bonus which goes with it - in Sunday's Molson Indy Vancouver, with a fourth-place finish which allowed him to build an insurmountable 218-126 points lead over Target/Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jimmy Vasser (Target Reynard Honda). Zanardi becomes the first driver to repeat as FedEx Championship Series champion since Bobby Rahal (1986-87) and the fifth multiple champion in the 20-year history of the series. He joins three-time titlists Rick Mears (1979, '81, '82), Rahal (1986, '87, '92) and two-time winners Al Unser (1983, '85) and Al Unser Jr. (1990, '94).
As he heads to Laguna Seca Raceway - site of his stirring, last-lap pass of Bryan Herta for victory in 1996, as well as his championship clinching third-place finish last year - Zanardi's 218 PPG Cup points rank him third on the FedEx Championship Series single-season list. Michael Andretti's (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Swift Ford) 234-point total en route to the 1991 championship stands as the series high, while Unser Jr.'s (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) 225 points in 1994 rank him next on the list.
Andretti amassed his point total in 17 events, Unser Jr. in 16. Sunday's Texaco/Havoline 300 is Round 16 of the championship; thus, Zanardi could surpass both totals with consecutive strong finishes this weekend and at the Oct. 4 Texaco Grand Prix of Houston.
Meanwhile, as Zanardi does battle with the CART record book, there's still plenty of jockeying going on behind him for the $1.75 million still to be awarded from the PPG Cup point fund to the second through 10th placers in the series championship. As the FedEx Championship Series heads to the picturesque Monterey peninsula, a mere 20 points separate the second and seventh-place drivers. The difference in post-season payout between those positions is considerably more substantial, from $500,000 for second place to $130,000 for seventh.
Like Zanardi, Vasser has constructed an impressive record of success at Laguna Seca. He finished third at the venue in 1996 and clinched the PPG Cup in the process. Last year, Vasser recorded his only victory of the season at Laguna Seca, part of a spectacular finish which saw him on the podium in the final three events of the campaign.
While Zanardi and Vasser are among several drivers with impressive records of success over the years at Laguna Seca, the hottest driver in the FedEx Championship Series of late has been Dario Franchitti (KOOL Reynard Honda). Franchitti earned his first career victory Aug. 16 at Road America, then followed that with a victory from the pole at Vancouver.
It was a triumph worth $440,000, including $330,000 in Marlboro Pole Award bonus money for becoming the first driver to win from the pole in 22 races, since Zanardi's 1997 victory at Cleveland. Franchitti's sudden success has vaulted him from eighth to fifth in the championship, with 110 points.
Vasser's closest pursuer in the bid for series runner-up honors is Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Labatt Reynard Ford), third with 120 PPG Cup points. Fernandez, who is enjoying the best season of his six-year career, owns top-five finishes in his two most recent starts on permanent road courses, including a victory at Mid-Ohio last month.
Greg Moore (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes) is fourth in the championship with 118 points, but will be looking to reverse a trend which has seen him exit without finishing any of the past three events.
Andretti, a two-time winner (1991, '92) at Laguna Seca, owns three runner-up finishes at Mid-Ohio, Toronto and Vancouver, in the past six events. His finish at Vancouver sent him over the 100 PPG Cup-point mark for the 13th time in his 15-year Champ Car career. With 109 points, he stands sixth in the championship, one behind Franchitti.
Seventh in the championship is Scott Pruett (Visteon Reynard Ford), who owns top-four finishes in five of the past seven events and has scored PPG Cup points in nine of the past 10. He comes off his third podium finish of the season, third at Vancouver.
All told, the Texaco/Havoline 300 entry list includes six former winners of the event. In addition to Zanardi, Vasser and Andretti, that distinguished roster includes Rahal (Miller Lite Reynard Ford), who won four consecutive starts at Laguna Seca from 1984-87. Rahal, in his final season as a FedEx Championship Series driver, is enjoying one of the most productive stretches of his 17-year career, with points-paying finishes in 11 of his past 12 starts.
Paul Tracy (KOOL Reynard Honda) is a two-time winner at Laguna Seca, and has scored PPG Cup points in four consecutive events for the first time since last year. Gil de Ferran's (Valvoline/Cummins Special Reynard Honda) 1995 victory at Laguna Seca, the first of his FedEx Championship Series career, allowed him to clinch the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year Award.
Unser Jr., who joins Rahal as the only driver to compete in all 15 Champ Car events at Laguna Seca, comes in off a spectacular drive at Vancouver, where he started 22nd and finished fifth. He's 11th in the championship, but two top-six finishes in the past three events suggest he may be ready to close the season with a rush.
Herta (Shell Reynard Ford) won the pole at Laguna Seca last year and has led a combined 62 laps in the past two events at the venue. Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Swift Ford) finished third at Road America last month in his most recent start on a road or street course.
Mark Blundell (Motorola PacWest Mercedes) was runner-up to Vasser at Laguna Seca last year. PacWest Racing Group teammate Mauricio Gugelmin (Hollywood PacWest Mercedes) has scored his two best finishes of the season in the past three events; fourth at Mid-Ohio and sixth at Vancouver.
The race for the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year Award remains unsettled, with Tony Kanaan (LCI Reynard Honda) leading Helio Castro-Neves (Alumax Aluminum Reynard Mercedes), 58-33. Though neither scored at Vancouver, fellow rookies JJ Lehto (Hogan Motor Leasing, Inc. Reynard Mercedes) and Alex Barron (Castrol-Degree Eagle Toyota) enjoyed some career highlights at the venue. Lehto's eighth-place finish was a career-best while Barron led 12 laps, the first time a Toyota-powered driver has been on the lead in the engine manufacturer's three years in the FedEx Championship Series.
Andre Ribeiro (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) finished a season-best seventh at Vancouver, despite his continuing recovery from a fractured left fibula sustained in a qualifying accident at Road America. Max Papis (MCI Reynard Toyota) continued an impressive performance over the second half of the season by finishing ninth at Vancouver, his fifth points-paying finish in the past seven events.
Michel Jourdain (Herdez/Viva Mexico! Reynard Ford) recorded a career-best 10th-place finish at Vancouver, his first top 10 in 37 career starts. Patrick Carpentier (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes) and Richie Hearn (Budweiser/Ralphs Swift Ford) seek returns to mid-season form following recent difficulties.
All three drivers who have registered consecutive victories in the 15-year CART history at Laguna Seca are currently active in the FedEx Championship Series and at least one of their triumphs came from the pole. Rahal is the most impressive among the stellar group, with four consecutive wins from 1984-87. His win from the pole came in 1985. Michael Andretti's back-to-back wins in 1991 and '92 both came from the pole. Paul Tracy (KOOL Reynard Honda) turned the trick in 1993 and '94, with his second victory coming from the pole.
Bobby Rahal's four consecutive victories at Laguna Seca from 1984-87 tie him with Unser Jr. for the longest string of consecutive wins at a current FedEx Championship Series venue. Unser Jr.'s streak of four consecutive victories came at Long Beach, from 1988-91.
Robby Gordon (Panasonic/Duskin/MCI Reynard Toyota) has made four career starts at Laguna Seca, with a best finish of 10th in 1993. Dennis Vitolo (SmithKline Beecham Reynard Ford) makes his third start at Laguna Seca; Arnd Meier (Hasseroder/J.A.G. Lola Ford), his first.
Vincenzo Sospiri (Castrol-Degree Eagle Toyota) makes his first career appearance in the FedEx Championship Series, replacing PJ Jones, who made his final start for All American Racers at Vancouver.
Qualifying for the Texaco/Havoline 300 will air 1:30 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2. "CART 2Day" airs 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2, one-half hour prior to ESPN's live race broadcast. The Texaco/Havoline 300 will be broadcast live on the CART Radio Network, beginning at 3 p.m. ET.
Following the Texaco/Havoline 300, the FedEx Championship Series takes two weeks off before resuming Oct. 4 with the inaugural Texaco Grand Prix of Houston.
Source: CART Online