CHAMPCAR/CART: Miami: Newman/Haas Racing race report

Da Man Clinches! Fittipaldi makes it a 1-2 finish. Chevron driver Da Matta clinched his first CART FedEx Series Championship as well as the fourth for Newman/Haas Racing with his seventh victory of the season in round 16 of 19 in today's Grand...

Da Man Clinches! Fittipaldi makes it a 1-2 finish.

Chevron driver Da Matta clinched his first CART FedEx Series Championship as well as the fourth for Newman/Haas Racing with his seventh victory of the season in round 16 of 19 in today's Grand Prix Americas --- Lilly driver Fittipaldi made it a 1-2 finish with second place.

- Chevron driver Cristiano da Matta drove a patient but calculated race to clinch his first CART FedEx Series Championship in dramatic fashion in the Grand Prix Americas. He led 58 of 105 laps on the 1.379-mile tight street course near Biscayne Bay in downtown Miami near his U.S. residence and clinched his first Champ car championship in only 76 starts and fourth year in the Series. It was his seventh victory this season and first Championship title since he was crowned the 1998 Indy Lights Champion after leading the series with four victories, three poles and eight podium finishes.

With his seventh win he tied Alex Zanardi ('98), Juan Montoya ('99), Al Unser Jr. ('94) and Michael Andretti ('91) as the only drivers with seven or more wins in one season. He also has scored six pole positions, and amassed a total of 10 podium finishes in 16 races this season and has led a total of 584 laps so far. He increased his career total laps led to 812, moving him into 19th on CART's all-time laps led list. He bumped Teo Fabi from the top-20 list and moved Jimmy Vasser to 20th with 792. He has led at least one lap in 11 of 12 CART road or street course races this season, getting shut out only in Denver.

He is tied for the most consecutive victories at four (Laguna Seca, Portland, Chicago, Toronto) with Al Unser, Jr. and Alex Zanardi and could possibly match a single-season record of eight wins in 2002 (Mi. Andretti - 1991, Al Unser Jr. - 1994) with three races to go - two of which list him as the defending winner (Australia and Fontana).

Not only was the entire team ecstatic after earning their fourth Championship and first since 1993 when Nigel Mansell accomplished the feat, but the day couldn't have brought more satisfaction as da Matta's teammate Fittipaldi finished second and ran the fastest race lap of day - admirable given passing opportunities were limited on a tight track and they started in sixth and eighth place respectively. As has been the case this season, da Matta's immense talent, combined with a well balanced and reliable Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone combination, quick pit work, intuitive pit strategy by the Chevron crew and a flawless race by all involved was integral to his moving from sixth place into victory. All of these factors enabled him to meet and exceed the pre-race goal of scoring 10 points more than second place Bruno Junqueira who earned 10 points for his fifth place finish to da Matta's 21 for winning and leading the most laps. Da Matta now holds a 69-point lead on his fellow Belo Horizonte native with a maximum of 68 points remaining over the final three races. Only one other driver - Alex Zanardi - clinched the Championship sooner than da Matta with three races remaining. The thrill of victory was made sweeter due to the tense situation in the Chevron pit as the team and sponsors watched as seventh place Junqueira was able to move into fifth due to a collision in the final laps of the race. In addition to the chance of another similar collision on the slick track potentially jeopardizing da Matta's championship bid, teammate Christian Fittipaldi was using every ounce of his strong race car to challenge da Matta for what could have been his first win of the season as there were no team orders dictating a controlled finish - something both drivers were thankful for later as it would have lessened the achievement. The title was not locked in however until the final lap when da Matta drove to victory and Junqueira finished fifth. After the race da Matta admitted that he wanted to know the status of the Championship in the final laps but did not want to be distracted by the situation so he chose to instead focus on winning the race and accept what ever the day brought. Once the top five took the checkered flag, the celebration began. Da Matta performed donuts for the fans before being met by his team and sponsors when he came to a stop near the podium. Da Matta and company took a celebratory parade lap - complete with race car and the Vanderbuilt Cup before heading to the top-spot of the podium. The day could not have been better without the drama.

The RaceOn a staggeringly hot and humid October afternoon, da Matta and company battled not only slick racing conditions on an extremely tight course but also hot temperatures that ranged from 118 to 127 degrees on the track and from 89 to 91 degrees ambient (F). Due to course conditions and his sixth place starting position, there were numerous strategy options depending on how the race transpired for da Matta and his only rivals in the Championship - Junqueira and Dario Franchitti. Fortunately neither driver qualified ahead of da Matta as Franchitti qualified seventh and Junqueira, 10th. Da Matta's friend and polesitter Tony Kanaan led the field to the green flag, which was waved by honorary starter and 1999 CART Champion Juan Pablo Montoya. The pre-race prediction of many collisions came to fruition when 13th place starter Oriol Servia was the first victim of the slick surface on Lap 1. A full course caution ensued until the race was restarted on Lap 3 although the restart brought another excursion involving Patrick Carpentier and Mario Dominguez. Their cars did not touch but they stalled on course. Once the race was restarted after Lap 5, Kanaan and second place Scott Dixon built a gap on third place Tora Takagi who might have held up those immediately behind him. Da Matta maintained his sixth place spot but moved into fifth on Lap 19 after Dixon had attempted to pass Kanaan and the two collided after Kanaan moved over on Dixon which triggered the accident as he was trying to protect his position. Kanaan was able to continue but Dixon could not. Meanwhile, Junqueira's team called him into the pits on Lap 20 although 21 was the opening of the pit window in order to make the event a two-stop race as CART rules dictated that everyone had to stop every 42 laps. Ultimately this played a big role in the outcome of the race and ultimately the Championship. Da Matta moved from fifth into second on Lap 21 after the majority of the field, including everyone ahead of him except race leader Kanaan, made their first stop within the mandatory 42-lap pit window. On Lap 23, CART stewards penalized Kanaan by moving him to the back of the grid for "taking an unjustifiable risk" with Dixon and da Matta took over the lead with Franchitti running second and Fittipaldi third. As the majority of the field pitted under slower caution conditions, the Chevron team attempted to maximize the ability to run at the head of the field without traffic and gain as much track position and lead on those who had already pitted before they made their first stop - potentially under racing conditions. Da Matta gave up the lead on Lap 42 and made his first stop and narrowly came out ahead of Franchitti. He returned to the track in fourth place but moved into second when Michel Jourdain and Paul Tracy completed their out-of-sequence stops by Lap 46. Da Matta was now running second to Junqueira who had made his first stop on Lap 20 to da Matta's stop on Lap 42 and would soon have to stop again. Da Matta continued to perform flawlessly on the treacherous track surface and regained the lead on Lap 62 when Junqueira pit. He held off a charging Franchitti and Fittipaldi through green flag racing conditions until his second and final stop on Lap 84. After another quick stop by the Chevron crew, as well as Dario's Kool crew, da Matta was able to edge ahead of Franchitti leaving his pit box and returned on track in second place to Tracy, who had used good pit strategy to jump from his 16th place start into the top-five of the field. Once Tracy made his final stop on Lap 88, da Matta regained the lead ahead of Junqueira who would have to make a third stop. Dario Franchitti, who was trying to keep his title hopes alive, brought out a caution on Lap 90 and bunched the field up behind the leader when he spun and got stuck in Turn 3. This not only enabled Fittipaldi to move into second place, it aided Junquiera's third stop on Lap 91 and helped him return to the track in seventh place. Each restart had increased the chance of the slippery conditions collecting another victim as well as the chance for overtaking and Junqueira's seventh place position would barely earn da Matta the championship so the pressure mounted. Once the race was restarted on Lap 94, Junqueira and Kanaan went off in Turn 1 and a full course caution ensued until Lap 96 of 105 although Junqueira was able to rejoin the race in his same position. Fittipaldi was immediately on da Matta's tail as the race resumed. By Lap 98, da Matta held only .3-second of a lead before another caution came out on Lap 99 for third place runner Tracy, who was clipped by ultimate third place finisher Jimmy Vasser who was actually attempting to pass Alex Tagliani but slid into Tracy. Not only did this jeopardize da Matta's situation because the track was blocked by cars in Turn 1 - a blind corner - but also because Junqueira gained two spots from Tracy and Jourdain, who was temporarily involved in the accident after he came upon the blind turn and made contact with Tracy. If the attrition stopped and da Matta was able to win while Junqueira finished fifth, he would have a 69-point advantage - one more than necessary. With the threat of another restart, a charging Fittipaldi, slippery conditions, and the ever-present possibility of mechanical gremlins, nothing was guaranteed. Fortunately, da Matta was able to clear the area without running over debris or being collected although his small advantage over second place evaporated. The race was carefully resumed on Lap 102, and by Lap 103, da Matta had built a narrow lead of .5-seconds over Fittipaldi although his teammate stayed close enough to capitalize on a potential mistake. The top-three remained nose-to-tail through the white flag signaling one lap to go but da Matta was able to hold off any last lap challenges and finished with a .734-second gap over Fittipaldi and - more importantly - 69-points ahead of Junqueira, who finished fifth. Da Matta brought Newman/Haas Racing their fourth championship in their 20th season. Mario Andretti won the first Championship for the team in 1984, Michael Andretti won the 1991 championship and Nigel Mansell brought the team its third Championship in 1993. Now that the pressure is off for the championship, da Matta and company have set their sights on bettering the single season win total of eight set by Michael Andretti in 1991 (with NHR) and Al Unser Jr. in 1994 with three races remaining and seven already under his belt. Following are a few of his post-race comments:

"I owe this championship to the whole Newman/Haas Racing team, to Toyota to Lola and to ChevronTexaco," said a pleased da Matta. "Carl Haas understands racing better than anyone I have ever me. He says "To win, you have to keep winning. You have to know your limits and make less mistakes and be more consistent.' That's what we have done this year. When I first started with Toyota (Oct. 1998), we were down on power and the engine didn't have very good driveability, but we grew up together. My first season my best finish was fourth, but the Toyota engine really improved quickly. My second season I won my first race. Then I moved to Newman/Haas and stayed with Toyota. I felt we were ready to contend for the championship and we did. This year, everything has come together and we are consistently near the top every week. There's no doubt that the Toyota/Lola combination is the best combination out there. Of course it feels great to win the championship. It's impossible to explain though. When I saw [Scott] Dixon crashing and Tony [Kanaan] got sent to the back of the line, it was the opportunity I was looking for after starting sixth. My car wasn't that great and Dario [Franchitti] was all over me while Christian [Fittipaldi] was all over him. I knew Bruno [Junqueira] had to make a few more stops because of strategy, and that it all could work out for us. After that it was of course a tough race. I didn't know where Bruno was and I didn't want to ask my team where he was either because I was thinking about it. So I just tried not to think about it and concentrated on driving. After all [the yellows] were clear, it was a good feeling to drive it to the checkered. I think there isn't a better way to clinch the championship then with a victory. When you clinch it with a win it shows that you were there all year. I'll just try to go for the record of nine wins [in a season] because that's all that's left for me this season. We had speed and consistency that nobody else could match. It's not my championship, it's our championship."

"This is a very proud day for this family," said his father Toninho da Matta, a 14-time Champion in Brazil. "He has come such a long, long way and it's almost hard to believe this is happening. But I knew when he was five years old that Cristiano had something special. He was so focused and that was just in a go-kart. He just kept getting better and faster."

- Lilly driver Christian Fittipaldi challenged for his first win of the season in the final of 105-laps in the Grand Prix Americas which took place near his U.S. base of Key Biscayne but was happy to earn his third second-place finish of the season from an eighth place start. Not only did he earn his fifth top-three podium finish of the season but he also proved that his car was capable of winning by setting the fastest race lap, a feat which earned him a watch along with his second place trophy. After scoring 16 of a maximum of 23 points over the weekend, Fittipaldi further solidified his fifth place ranking and moved to within one point of fourth place Patrick Carpentier who has 115 points to Fittipaldi's 114. With three races to go and a maximum of 68 points available, Fittipaldi is still mathematically capable of supplanting second place Bruno Junqueira who has a 29-point advantage with a total of 143 although there are 10 other drivers that can still end the year as the championship runner-up.

At the beginning of the race, he maintained his eighth place start through the first two caution periods for Oriol Servia and Mario Dominguez and Patrick Carpentier respectively. On lap 19, he moved into seventh place when Scott Dixon stopped on course after contact with race leader Tony Kanaan. By Lap 21, he moved up to fourth place when the majority of the field pitted under caution for Kanaan and Dixon's collision. By lap 24 he moved into third when Kanaan was penalized for unjustifiable risk by CART stewards and moved to the back of the grid. He held third place behind race leader da Matta and Dario Franchitti from Laps 24 to 42 when he made his first pit stop. He initially returned to the track in sixth place behind Paul Tracy, Bruno Junqueira and Michel Jourdain who were out of pit sequence but once they made their scheduled stops, he was back in third by Lap 62. He held his position and remained close to Franchitti. He was unable to set-up a clean pass on the Scotsman but wanted to remain close so that he could give his pit crew the best opportunity to pick up a position through quick service on his second and final pit stop later in the race. On Lap 83, he entered the pits while da Matta and Franchitti stayed on track. Fittipaldi returned to the track in fifth place while da Matta and Franchitti pitted and were able to remain in front of him once they returned to the course. Fittipaldi ran in fifth place until Lap 88 when Tracy made his final stop and moved into fourth when Franchitti slid into the tire barrier. Junqueira, who had moved up to second place, benefited from the caution period and came in for his third stop but was unable to return to the track any higher than seventh place. Fittipaldi was now in possession of second place behind da Matta by Lap 91 of 105. Although he had already set the fastest lap of the race on Lap 34, he still had a strong car that he intended to maximize. He held second place through three of the six total caution periods from Laps 91-105 but was unable to successfully overtake his fellow Brazilian despite being only three-tenths of a second behind him through the majority of the restarts. He took the checkered flag .745-seconds in arrears to collect 16 points for the race as well as a second place trophy and watch for setting the fastest lap. With three races remaining in the 2002 CART FedEx Season as well as his current Champ car career, Fittipaldi is determined to bring sponsor Lilly a victory as well as surpass his best finish of fifth place in the 1996 CART series. Following are his post race comments:

"Well, the race was actually very good, a little bit physical, especially the first quarter of the race," said Fittipaldi. "That was the hardest part for me. After I started getting into a pace, I really didn't have any problems. Toward halfway onwards, I was getting stronger and stronger. I felt good. The car was good all the time. Up to a certain point, it was probably quicker than the other guys on the track, but it was sliding all over the place, like everyone else was. Track position was key today. If we didn't have problems on Friday during qualifying, we started where we should have started, probably the final result would have been different. But we had to pay for it, or maybe the way the (second qualifying) session went cost me something. I'm happy to finish second, happy for the team, for Shorty [da Matta] who did an excellent job the whole year. He was not only quick, but he was consistent. He deserves to be up there. It (the one-two finish) was definitely a great effort from everyone. We definitely had a couple of races that we didn't finish that cost us a lot of points. Shorty was stronger than I was the whole year, no doubt about that. But we probably would have been a little bit higher up. Unfortunately, that didn't go our way. We still have three more races to change that. I think that we can do it.

"Things are going very well right now. We had two excellent stops, especially after the four or five races, where we were really struggling with our stops during the race. They were really slow. We were dropping tires, doing all kinds of different things. We not only had two solid stops, but also we put ourselves in the [Craftsman] pit stop challenge, that we're going to do in Fontana. It's very important for my crew.

(On challenging da Matta who was attempting to clinch the Championship:) "No team orders today. Even if they asked me not going for first place, I would never lift. I have a different sponsor. I have to try my very best out there. I have to please my sponsor also. No one ever came to me and asked me for a team order. Second, if it was for first place, I would do it. If it was second, third, fourth, I don't care, I would let him by. I'm out there to try to win some more races before I go on to do something else. I can't believe I have 20-something podium finishes and I only have two wins. I'm definitely trying to win a race before the end of the season."

MANUFACTURERS CHAMPIONSHIPSToyota extended its CART Manufacturer's Championship lead to 46 points over Honda, 287-241. Ford is third, 81 points behind and has been eliminated from the championship hunt. Toyota can wrap up the CART Manufacturer's Championship by scoring a total of 20 points in the season's final three races. With a lead of 335-193 at the close of the Grand Prix Americas today, Lola Cars officially clinched the manufacturers' title.

- Next Up...The series will take two weeks off before Round 17 of 19 takes place on the streets of Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia on October 27. Da Matta is the defending winner in Australia as well as two of the remaining three CART FedEx events (also Fontana). Fittipaldi's highest finish of third place came in 1998.

-nhr-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya