CHAMPCAR/CART: Mexico City: Season finale preview

CART FedEx Championship Series closes 2002 slate with return to Mexico City with $500,000 runner-up slot still up for grabs. INDIANAPOLIS (November 11, 2002) - The battle for the 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series runner-up, and the $500,000 ...

CART FedEx Championship Series closes 2002 slate with return to Mexico City with $500,000 runner-up slot still up for grabs.

INDIANAPOLIS (November 11, 2002) - The battle for the 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series runner-up, and the $500,000 prize that goes with it, has boiled down to a trio of drivers who will lead the chase as the Champ Car series winds up the 2002 season with a trip to the newly-refurbished Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, Mexico.

The year's racing will end Sunday with the Gran Premio Telmex-Gigante Presented by Banamex/Visa as CART makes its return to the Mexican capital 21 years after Rick Mears won back-to-back races in 1980-81. The Mears-led events were contested on the same Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez track as this year's edition of the race will be, although substantial renovation has lengthened the track to 2.75 miles from the old distance of 2.48.

Bruno Junqueira (#4 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone), Patrick Carpentier (#32 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) and Dario Franchitti (#27 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) are the combatants in the fight for the second-place spot in the final season standings, with Junqueira holding the lead by a scant three points over Carpentier with Franchitti sitting 10 markers behind Junqueira.

Junqueira has seen his lead in the fight for the runner-up spot shrink over the last two races despite the fact that he has qualified second for both events. He placed 14th in the rain-soaked Australia event and came back to finish ninth in Fontana after his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team put him down a lap by failing to tighten a wheel on an early pit stop. Franchitti's chances were also dealt a blow at Fontana when his engine erupted in flames with five laps to run, dropping him to 10th on the scoring pylon. The Scotsman has strung together four top-10 finishes to end the year however, a run that started with a win at Rockingham.

Carpentier has taken full advantage of the missteps by finishing on the podium in each of the last two races, including a third-place run at Fontana. Carpentier is currently enjoying his best season in the CART series, scoring a career-best 145 points and guaranteeing himself his highest-ever finish in the points no matter what happens in Mexico City.

But in order to snare the runner-up prize, the trio and everyone else in the 19-car field will have to deal with 2002 series champion Cristiano da Matta (#1 Havoline Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone), who has won the last two Mexican events - both of which took place at Monterrey's Fundidora Park circuit. Da Matta, who announced last week that he will race for Toyota's Formula 1 team next year, comes into the race with a chance to tie the series record for wins in a season with eight and could become just the sixth driver in series history to win eight poles if he leads final qualifying on Saturday.

Fontana winner Jimmy Vasser (#8 Shell Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) will look to keep his roll going as the California native has charged up the standings with a late-season run of eight consecutive points-paying finishes, a streak that is his longest since 1998. Vasser was 12th in the point standings at the start of his run, but has vaulted into the sixth spot after his Fontana win and is just 10 points behind Christian Fittipaldi (#11 Lilly Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) for the fifth spot.

Fittipaldi will be making a severe transition in his 132nd Champ Car start as he will be strapping into his Newman/Haas mount just one week after wrestling a 3,400-pound NASCAR stock car as he drove for Petty Enterprises to a 41st-place finish in the Winston Cup race in Phoenix. Fittipaldi has also earned a career-high point total this year and could eclipse his previous best championship finish of fifth if he can gain 16 points on Franchitti in Mexico City.

Holding onto his fifth-place spot in the points could even be a problem for Fittipaldi as five drivers come into the year's final event with a mathematical chance to climb into the top-five. Vasser leads a quintet of drivers that could end the year in the top-five, a group that includes all-time CART victory leader Michael Andretti (#39 Motorola Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) and Milwaukee winner Paul Tracy (#26 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone).

Popular hometown hero Adrian Fernandez (#51 Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) will be the focus of attention during Friday's first Champ Car practice as the veteran driver tries to overcome the injuries suffered in a first-lap crash in Surfers Paradise. Fernandez missed the Fontana race after fracturing two thoracic vertebrae in the crash, but will drive in the first practice session to see if he can run the entire weekend. If he can not continue, CART Toyota Atlantic driver Luis Diaz will take over. Diaz won a pair of races in this season's Atlantic championship and would make his first Champ Car start if Fernandez needs a relief driver.

The race will also mark the Champ Car debut of Andre Lotterer (#19 Dale Coyne Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), who will pilot a Dale Coyne Racing machine in his first CART outing. Coyne's squad will make its return to the series after putting together a successful effort for Darren Manning at Rockingham where the rookie led 18 laps and finished ninth. The 20-year-old Lotterer has most recently been a test driver for Jaguar's Formula 1 team and won three races in the German F3 Championship in the 2000 season.

Mexican drivers Mario Dominguez (#55 Herdez Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and Michel Jourdain Jr. (#9 Gigante Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) will also be the focus of a home-country crowd that is expected to top 300,000 over the three days. Dominguez, who claimed the first win of his career in Australia has clinched the Jim Trueman Rookie-of-the-Year Award while Jourdain will look to bounce back after having a 17-race points-paying streak ended by engine trouble in Fontana. Jourdain is another driver that is in the midst of his best CART season, setting a new personal standard for points, top-five finishes and championship finish.

The Gran Premio Telmex-Gigante Presented by Banamex/Visa will take place Sunday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time and will be broadcast live on SPEED Channel. Championship points will be awarded to the leaders of both Friday and Saturday's qualifying runs, sessions that can be seen on a one-hour tape delay on SPEED Channel. Friday's qualifying can be seen at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time, while Saturday's final qualifying will be shown starting at 3:30 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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Series IndyCar
Drivers Andre Lotterer , Darren Manning , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Bruno Junqueira , Adrian Fernandez , Patrick Carpentier , Paul Tracy , Luis Diaz , Mario Dominguez , Rick Mears , Chip Ganassi , Dale Coyne , Cristiano da Matta , Michel Jourdain , Mo Nunn
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing