CHAMPCAR/CART: Michigan Preview

Can Zanardi Topple Unser's Record? Brooklyn, MI(July 22, 1998) -- Alex Zanardi will chase the CART record for most consecutive victories while the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing two-car team seeks to maintain its exclusive rights to the...

Can Zanardi Topple Unser's Record?

Brooklyn, MI(July 22, 1998) -- Alex Zanardi will chase the CART record for most consecutive victories while the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing two-car team seeks to maintain its exclusive rights to the Vanderbilt Cup as the FedEx Championship Series travels to Michigan Speedway for Sunday's U.S. 500 Presented by Toyota (1 p.m. ET, live, ABC-TV).

Zanardi (Target Reynard Honda) equaled the CART record of four consecutive victories, set by Al Unser Jr. in 1990, at last week's Molson Indy in Toronto and eyes his fifth at a venue in which he reigns as the defending champion. He rolled to a 31.737-second victory in last season's U.S. 500 Presented by Toyota for his first career oval win in the FedEx Championship Series. He also has led at least 74 laps in each of his three career appearances at Michigan and has led a combined 312 of the 750 laps run in those events.

Coupled with a victory by Jimmy Vasser (Target Reynard Honda) at the inaugural U.S. 500 in 1996, Zanardi's win last season gave Target/Chip Ganassi a stranglehold on the Vanderbilt Cup, the prize chalice of the U.S. 500 winner.

Zanardi's charge at Unser Jr.'s record began innocently with a June 7 triumph at Detroit. He followed with a victory at Portland on June 21 and then registered the second three-race winning streak of his three-year career with a win July 12 at Cleveland.

The streak appeared to be in jeopardy last week in Toronto when Dario Franchitti (KOOL Reynard Honda) won the pole and possessed an extremely dominant car on race day. Franchitti led 76 of the 95 laps before a brake problem led to a spin, ended his day and handed the lead to CART's all-time victory leader, Michael Andretti (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Swift Ford). Zanardi, however, took advantage of Andretti's loose car to make a daring inside move with three laps remaining for the lead and the eventual victory that tied him with Unser Jr.

The four consecutive victories have vaulted Zanardi, the defending series champion, to a commanding lead in the FedEx Championship Series title race. He leads Vasser, who is second in the championship, by a 69-point margin (175-106) and third-place Greg Moore (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes, 98 points) by 77.

But Zanardi's run at sole possession of the CART record could face its stiffest competition from the other half of the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing equation - Vasser.

Vasser, who will be making his 100th career start, is the only other Champ Car driver beside Zanardi who is a multiple winner this season. Also consider that both of Vasser's victories have come on ovals (Nazareth, Milwaukee), he has he finished among the top eight in 10 consecutive races and has enjoyed a bevy of success in recent years at Michigan Speedway.

He won the inaugural U.S. 500 in 1996 and has finished ninth or better in three of his last four Michigan appearances. He also won two of his six career poles at Michigan - sweeping the position at the two events in 1996 - and has qualified fifth or better in his last four starts at the superspeedway. The second pole in 1996, which came in July, remains the track qualifying record at 234.665 miles per hour.

The Target/Chip Ganassi Racing tandem of Zanardi and Vasser is riding a six-race win streak - dating to Zanardi's win at St. Louis - and is looking to tie the CART team mark of seven established by Marlboro Team Penske in 1994. The Target/Chip Ganassi Racing duo has won 21 of the last 44 CART races dating to the start of the 1996 season and no other team has captured more than seven during that span.

Zanardi and Vasser, however, must contend with five other Champ Car drivers who have tamed the 2-mile superspeedway in the Irish Hills. Bobby Rahal (Miller Lite Reynard Ford) was the first among the active winners to capture a victory at Michigan Speedway, winning a 150-mile event in 1982. He later added a 200-mile win in 1985 and 250-mile triumph in '86. He also is a three-time polesitter, garnering that position in 1983 and twice in '85. He has led 441 laps in his Michigan career, including 25 last year.

Andretti is the only other active Champ Car driver who has multiple victories at Michigan. He won from the pole in 1987 and added another triumph in '89 for the only 500-mile wins of his illustrious career. He also has been the one driver who has had Zanardi in his sights the last two races, finishing runner-up to him at Cleveland and Toronto, respectively.

Unser Jr. (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) landed one of his three career 500-mile wins at Michigan, with that victory coming in 1990. Scott Pruett (Visteon Reynard Ford) recorded his first CART victory at Michigan in 1995, outdueling Unser Jr. by 0.056 seconds in what was then the second-closest finish in Champ Car history. His most recent success came in his last appearance at Michigan when he captured the pole for last season's race.

Andre Ribeiro (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) earned his third career victory at Michigan in 1996 and will look to extend an impressive streak in 500-mile events. He has led at least 21 laps in five of his six career starts in 500-mile events since he joined the FedEx Championship Series in 1995. In his four Michigan starts, he has led 236 laps with a best of 114 in a winning-effort at the 1996 Marlboro 500. He also finished fourth in the inaugural U.S. 500.

PacWest Racing has attacked Michigan Speedway in double-barrel fashion. Mauricio Gugelmin (Hollywood PacWest Mercedes) has finished among the top six in his last three appearances and has led at least one lap in his past four. His best performance was a runner-up finish at the 1996 U.S. 500. Mark Blundell (Motorola PacWest Mercedes) has finished sixth or better in three career starts, the highlight being a runner-up effort last year.

Bryan Herta (Shell Reynard Ford) and Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Special Reynard Honda) have not been victorious at Michigan Speedway, but both have enjoyed success there in recent years. Herta has qualified 11th or better in four career starts, including a best of third at the 1996 U.S. 500. He finished fifth last season and equaled his career-best finish of second at the 1996 Marlboro 500. De Ferran has scored points in three of four career appearances and established personal bests last season when he started 10th and finished third.

Dennis Vitolo (SmithKline Beecham Reynard Ford), Max Papis (MCI Reynard Toyota) and Arnd Meier (Hasseroder/J.A.G. Lola Ford) produced career-best finishes a year ago at the U.S. 500 Presented by Toyota. Vitolo finished seventh and it remains his career-best effort. Papis finished eighth and he matched that performance last week in Toronto. Meier finished 12th for his first career PPG Cup points and the performance remains a career best, matched this season at Portland .

Moore, Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Labatt Reynard Ford) and Paul Tracy (KOOL Reynard Honda) are candidates for their first career 500-mile victories considering their oval success this season.

Moore has five top-four performances in six oval starts this season. He was victorious at Rio, finished second at Homestead, third at Nazareth and Gateway, and fourth at Japan. His only finish outside the top four was 13th at Milwaukee. Two of Fernandez's top-three, season-best performances have come on ovals, including his second career win. He was victorious at Motegi and added a third-place finish at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His top finish at Michigan is third in 1995.

Tracy's season-best performances have come on ovals as well, accounting for three of his four top-seven finishes. He captured fifth at Japan and Nazareth and was seventh at Milwaukee. He also has had success at Michigan, including a personal-best of second in 1992, and the U.S. 500. He was seventh in the inaugural event and fourth last season.

Franchitti continues to move closer to earning his first CART career victory as he heads to the U.S. 500 Presented by Toyota. After posting three top-four finishes in his last four starts, he had perhaps his best opportunity at the elusive first victory in Toronto. Also on a roll of late is Richie Hearn (Budweiser/Ralphs Swift Ford), who has registered three top 10 finishes in his last five starts. The run is highlighted by a career-best sixth place finish at Milwaukee and a seventh at Toronto.

Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Swift Ford) and Robby Gordon (Panasonic/Duskin/MCI Reynard Toyota) have had a smattering of success at Michigan, but look to build off their most recent superspeedway performances as well. Fittipaldi was ninth at Fontana last season while Gordon was eighth. Fittipaldi has a personal-best finish of ninth at Michigan (1995) in four career starts while Gordon's is eighth ('96) in four starts.

PJ Jones (Castrol-Degree Reynard Toyota) and Michel Jourdain Jr. (Herdez/Viva Mexico! Reynard Ford) will look forward to a return to a superspeedway after showing promise in their most recent efforts. Jones finished 10th at the 1997 season finale at Fontana, which was just one position shy of matching his career-best finish of ninth (1996 Detroit). Jourdain Jr. performed well in his only two career appearances on a superspeedway, finishing 13th at last season's U.S. 500 Presented by Toyota and qualifying a career-best fifth at Fontana.

Four rookies will make their superspeedway debuts at the U.S. 500 Presented By Toyota. Tony Kanaan (LCI Reynard Honda) enters the U.S. 500 Presented by Toyota with the points lead in the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year race. Kanaan, on the strength of five top-nine finishes, holds a 39-32 advantage over Helio Castro-Neves (Alumax Aluminum Reynard Mercedes). Rounding out the rookie crop is J J Lehto (Hogan Motor Leasing, Inc. Reynard Mercedes) and Alex Barron (Castrol-Degree Reynard Toyota).

Patrick Carpentier's (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes) only career superspeedway appearance came last season at Michigan. The second-year driver started 12th and finished 15th and later missed the season finale at Fontana due to injury.

Qualifying for the U.S. 500 Presented by Toyota will air 6 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN2. "CART 2Day" airs 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday, one half-hour prior to ABC-TV's live race broadcast. The FedEx Championship Series will take a one-week break after three consecutive weeks of racing before heading to the Miller Lite 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Aug. 9.

Source: CART Online

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Robby Gordon , Al Unser Jr. , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Max Papis , Adrian Fernandez , Patrick Carpentier , Christian Fittipaldi , Alex Zanardi , Tony Kanaan , Mauricio Gugelmin , Bryan Herta , Scott Pruett , Mark Blundell , Richie Hearn , Alex Barron , Chip Ganassi , Andre Ribeiro , Greg Moore , Michel Jourdain
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing