ZANARDI AIMS FOR THIRD STRAIGHT MID-OHIO TITLE Lexington, Ohio -- For defending PPG Cup champion and current points leader Alex Zanardi, one winning streak is over. His bid for a CART record-breaking fifth consecutive victory ended on the final...
ZANARDI AIMS FOR THIRD STRAIGHT MID-OHIO TITLE
Lexington, Ohio -- For defending PPG Cup champion and current points leader Alex Zanardi, one winning streak is over. His bid for a CART record-breaking fifth consecutive victory ended on the final lap of last week's U.S. 500 when Greg Moore and teammate Jimmy Vasser edged him at the finish line by less than one second. The third-place finish means Zanardi still shares the record for consecutive wins with Al Unser Jr., who strung together four straight victories in 1990.
Now that the chase for the record is over, perhaps the many questions about the streak, the history books and the "drive for five" will subside. Then again, maybe not.
That's right ... another impressive streak is still alive and could very well grow as Zanardi and the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing team head to Lexington, Ohio for the Aug. 9 Miller Lite 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The two-time defending champion at Mid-Ohio will be aiming to go six-for-six on street and road courses this season.
Zanardi's stranglehold on the road courses began back in April with a dramatic win at the Long Beach Grand Prix, where he rallied from ninth place with 12 laps remaining, culminated by a daring pass of leader Brian Herta with two laps left. After four straight short-oval races (including a somewhat surprising victory at Gateway), the "King of the Road" continued his winning ways with his record-tying string of victories at Detroit, Portland, Cleveland and Toronto.
Of Zanardi's 14 career CART victories, a dozen have come on road or street courses, as have 17 of his 23 podium finishes. With six of the final seven races of the season being contested on street or road courses, and having already built a hefty 68-point lead in the PPG Cup standings, it would appear that Zanardi is well on the way to netting his second consecutive series championship and the third in a row for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. However, Zanardi warns that it's too soon to start clearing another space on his mantle just yet.
"It's nice to have a cushion in the standings, but the season is a long way from being over," Zanardi says. "This series is too competitive and there are too many very strong teams and drivers to start thinking about the championship yet. We just have to keep doing what we've been doing, which is winning races and being very competitive every week."
Zanardi, who is trying to become the first driver to win three consecutive Mid-Ohio championships, says he is eager to return to the Buckeye State, where he has posted four wins (Mid-Ohio in 1996 and 1997; Cleveland in 1997 and 1998) and one runner-up finish (Cleveland in 1996) in five career races.
"It's always nice to go back to a place where you've had success and where you feel comfortable, and I definitely feel at home at Mid-Ohio. This kind of course suits my background, because I learned to drive on these permanent road circuits.
"Nevertheless, it's very difficult to win a race and it takes a lot of things to go right to be successful," he adds. "The last two years we've been able to put together the right set-up. Morris (Nunn, Zanardi's chief engineer) has a lot of experience, so the car was very good right out of the box. I probably gave him the right input to make the car even better, and I drove pretty well there the last two years. So it's a combination of a lot of things that have gone right that has allowed us to have success there."
When asked to assess the Mid-Ohio course, Zanardi says the 2.25-mile circuit presents a few unique challenges. "It's definitely THE most challenging track on a single lap, in qualifying for instance. Obviously you have to have a good car, but it's difficult to put together a really good lap. There are a lot of blind corners and a lot of ups and downs. It's a physically demanding course and very tiring during the race."
Zanardi registered 253 laps at Mid-Ohio during a two-day tire test in early July and says he was pleased with the results. "I think we improved the set-up a bit during that session. The main purpose was to do a tire test, and I think we came out of there with some pretty good information. I'm confident we're going to have a good car. I'll be disappointed if we're not in the top five in qualifying."
Zanardi's teammate, Jimmy Vasser, has an impressive streak of his own that he hopes to extend at Mid-Ohio. The 1996 PPG Cup champion has posted 11 consecutive top-eight finishes. Dating back to last year's Mid-Ohio race, he has finished in the top eight in 16 of 17 races. The lone exception during that stretch was a 16th-place finish in this year's opener at Homestead.
Asked to explain his remarkable record of consistency, Vasser quickly deflects the credit. "It's a real credit to my crew chief, Grant Weaver. He's given me a car that just doesn't let me down. It's also a reflection of the dedication my team has. While we have the reliability of the Honda engine and Firestone tires, it's the crew that has the most influence. We all like to finish races, and that's what we set out to do - finish every race."
As for his recent testing session in Lexington, during which he registered 155 laps using several different suspension and aero packages, Vasser says it was beneficial. "We had a good test and learned a lot. We tested without the race tire, so I'll be curious to see what our times are with those tires."
In describing the Mid-Ohio circuit, Vasser agrees with Zanardi that it is among the most challenging on the 19-race schedule. "It's definitely one of the most physically demanding tracks for the drivers," he says. "On this particular course, it's important to get the car balanced and save the tires for the last portion of each stint. I think Mid-Ohio is a fantastic track, and it's always an exciting race for the fans and the drivers. I'm looking forward to going back there."
Should Zanardi or Vasser end up taking the checkered flag at Mid-Ohio, it would give Target/Chip Ganassi Racing its second event "three-peat" of the year. The team won its third consecutive Long Beach Grand Prix earlier this season.