CHAMPCAR/CART: Miami: Grand Prix Americas preview

A trio of drivers remain in the hunt as da Matta looks to claim first CART FedEx Championship Series title in Miami streets. INDIANAPOLIS (September 25, 2002) - The return of the CART FedEx Championship Series to the streets of Miami after a ...

A trio of drivers remain in the hunt as da Matta looks to claim first CART FedEx Championship Series title in Miami streets.

INDIANAPOLIS (September 25, 2002) - The return of the CART FedEx Championship Series to the streets of Miami after a seven-year hiatus could either be a coronation or a continuance, with three of the series' top drivers looking to ensure that points leader Cristiano da Matta (#6 Chevron Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) carries his quest for the Vanderbilt Cup on to Australia.

Da Matta could clinch the Championship Auto Racing Teams title earlier than anyone since Alex Zanardi locked down the 1998 crown with four races to go - by leaving Miami with a lead of 68 points. With 23 points available at this weekend's Grand Prix Americas, da Matta seals his first-ever series championship if he outscores second-place Bruno Junqueira (#4 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) by 10 points over the weekend.

Not that the task will be an easy one for da Matta, who is among a growing number of CART drivers that call Miami home during the bulk of the season. Junqueira leads a trio of drivers that still have a mathematical shot at upending the Brazilian as they give chase to the Newman/Haas pilot through the tricky 1.379-mile street course that winds through the downtown Miami area. The second-year CART driver enters the weekend 58 points behind the leader and will be looking for a strong performance to aid his cause.

The Grand Prix Americas signals the return of the 800-plus horsepower Champ Cars to the streets of Miami after successful races in the mid 1980s at Tamiami Park and in 1995 on a similar downtown street course. This weekend's event may be the first on the South Florida boulevards since then but it will be a return of sorts for five of CART's current crop of drivers, including the day's polesitter Michael Andretti (#39 Motorola Honda/Lola/Bridgestone), who ran in the 1995 event.

But there will be no such sense of familiarity for the drivers battling to stay in the title hunt as neither da Matta, Junqueira, Dario Franchitti (#27 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) nor Patrick Carpentier (#32 Player's/Forsythe Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) were racing in the Champ Car series when CART last visited Miami. The street circuits have been one of the keys to da Matta's current position in the points with the diminutive Brazilian having started in the front row in three of the four street circuits this year. Starting position has not been the only key however as he has finished on the podium in the only race he did not start up front in, placing third after starting seventh in Denver.

Both Junqueira and Franchitti have street-course wins on their 2002 resume, Franchitti coming from third to win in Vancouver while Junqueira rolled from the pole to capture the Shell Grand Prix of Denver. Of the four drivers left in the championship shootout, only Carpentier has yet to taste success on the street courses, finishing a season best fifth after starting 16th at Vancouver. Carpentier has the toughest road ahead of those looking to upend da Matta, entering the weekend 76 points behind the leader. Franchitti holds down the third spot in the queue and is 65 digits in arrears to da Matta.

But there are still a number of talented drivers and hungry teams beyond those that have aspirations toward the throne. Christian Fittipaldi (#11 Lilly Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) leads a group of eight drivers that could climb as high as second in the championship by season's end, returning to the site of his 1995 Champ Car debut. Fittipaldi showed the form that would lead him to second place in the season's Rookie-of-the-Year chase, finishing fifth on the streets of Miami in his first-ever CART event.

Andretti will return looking to reprise his 1995 polewinning effort in Miami, and could be a darkhorse candidate as his road-course success this season belies his eighth-place standing in the championship. All but nine of his 85 points have come on road and street courses and he is second in the series to Michel Jourdain Jr. (#9 Gigante Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) in number of laps completed on road and street courses this year, finishing 1,018 of the 1,031 contested this season.

Jourdain continues to be the picture of consistency this season as he carries a league-best streak of 15 straight points-paying finishes into this weekend's event. Jourdain stands sixth in the championship chase with 94 markers and has taken top-five finishes on the streets of Toronto and Long Beach this year. His Team Rahal stablemate Jimmy Vasser (#8 Shell Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) is also a threat as he looks to continue a streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes.

Patrick Racing's Oriol Servia (#20 Visteon Toyota/Reynard/Bridgestone) rewarded his new team's faith in him with a strong finish, storming to a fourth-place run in England just days after signing on to drive for the team for the rest of the 2002 campaign. The finish moved him to within 15 points of the top 15 in the championship despite the fact that he has run in just nine of the season's 15 events.

Walker Racing's Tora Takagi (#5 Pioneer/Denso Special Toyota/Reynard/Bridgestone) is coming off one of the best weekends of his Champ Car career after he qualified fourth and challenged for the race lead before settling for sixth, breaking a three-race scoreless streak. Takagi has hung up a pair of top-eight finishes on street courses this season and has shown the ability to keep his car on track this year - standing seventh in laps completed.

As always, Paul Tracy (#26 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) bears watching on the tight street courses where it has been feast-or-famine this season for the racer who will take over as the leader in CART wins by an active driver next season. Tracy qualified second in Toronto but spun and finished 16th, but rebounded in his next chance on the streets of Vancouver parlaying a front-row starting spot into a second-place finish. He started deep in the pack at Denver and survived a first-lap incident with Franchitti to finish eighth.

Scott Dixon (#44 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) is coming off of the best street-course effort of his career when he chased his teammate Junqueira around the last five laps of the Denver circuit before settling for a runner-up finish. Dixon is narrowly fending off his stablemate Kenny Brack (#12 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) for the last spot in the top 10 in the standings, Dixon holding 82 points to Brack's 81. Brack is still looking for his first win after leaving Team Rahal in the offseason and had his best race of the year at Rockingham, leading 134 laps from the pole before a pit stop problem doomed him to an eighth-place run.

The Grand Prix Americas will take place Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time and will be broadcast live on CBS Sports. Championship points will be awarded to the leaders of both Friday and Saturday's qualifying sessions as well, sessions that can be seen live on SPEED Channel, Friday's run starting at 2 p.m. with Saturday's final qualifying slated for a 1:30 p.m. start.

Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc. (NYSE: MPH) owns, operates and markets the CART FedEx Championship Series. Current points leader Cristiano da Matta leads the stars battling for the 2002 FedEx Championship Series title with teams such as Player's/Forsythe Racing, Newman/Haas Racing, Patrick Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. 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 Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Patrick Carpentier , Christian Fittipaldi , Paul Tracy , Scott Dixon , Alex Zanardi , Oriol Servia , Tora Takagi , Kenny Brack , Chip Ganassi , Cristiano da Matta , Michel Jourdain
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing