CHAMPCAR/CART: Montoya pulls ahead at Michigan

By Tom Haapanen - It was a close scrape for Juan Pablo Montoya, in more ways than one. He pipped Michael Andretti to the finish line by 0.04 seconds, or less than one car length. After the end of the final full-course yellow...

By Tom Haapanen -

It was a close scrape for Juan Pablo Montoya, in more ways than one. He pipped Michael Andretti to the finish line by 0.04 seconds, or less than one car length. After the end of the final full-course yellow on lap 229, it was an all-out race to the finish, and Montoya and Michael Andretti were in a class of their own.

The two diced for the lead intensely over the final ten laps, bringing the estimated crowd of 50,000 to its feet, and swapping position often twice on the same lap.

With the slingshot effect of the draft, the closing laps were not just about taking the lead - but about positioning yourself to make sure that you would also have that lead when the checkered flag fell at the end of the final lap.

And Montoya played that game like a master, positioning his car perfectly behind Andretti's Lola-Ford in turns 3 and 4 to take the lead back before they passed the finish line at the end of each lap.

On the final lap, the two leaders came up to lap Tarso Marques' in the final turn. Montoya was taking the outside line to try to get past Andretti, and with Marques moving very high to get out of their way, Montoya was able to get a better draft from Marques' Swift-Ford, giving him the few hundredths of a second he needed to claim the win.

"He stayed real high, trying to stay out of our way, and Juan won the race," said Andretti. "But most of the time I'm not even here at the end of this race!"

"At least we are now in the right position [for the championship]," he added. And, indeed, Andretti looks positioned for his most serious championship challenge since 1996, holding a solid lead with a 108 points, over Roberto Moreno (90) and Paul Tracy (80), with Montoya a little further back at 74 points.

But the rollbar of Montoya's Target Lola-Toyota showed the results on a scrape of another kind - a gouge from a carbon fiber fragment from Kenny Brack's shattered car.

Brack was challenging Andretti's teammate, Christian Fittipaldi, for the lead on the 97th lap, pulling up to the level of the Newman-Haas driver's rear wheels on the outside. However, Fittipaldi appeared not to see the Swede, and continued to move up higher on the track.

With traffic behind him as well, Brack was trapped, and Fittipaldi forced him into the wall. "I don't know if his mirror fell off or if his spotter fell asleep," speculated Brack. "We had a car that could have won this race."

"Nobody better close the door on me," the Brazilian had said on Saturday. But he closed the door on Brack, and Brack's Reynard-Ford coasted to a halt on the apron, with a shower of carbon fiber fragments falling on the track, onto Montoya's and Dario Franchitti's cars - and one even stabbing Gil de Ferran's finger.

"He wasn't really in the game today," Franchitti said of Fittipaldi. "He was making aggressive moves all day."

Fittipaldi continued, but eventually suffered the same fate, as he spun out on lap 221, fortunately coasting to a halt on the infield grass without making contact with the wall. And, closing the circle, this, in turn, set the scene for the final sprint to the finish line.

Most of the race had held true to the recent CART superspeedway form, with the lead often changing several times on any given lap. With the high-drag "Handford device" rear wings in use at the superspeedways, drafting was the name of the game, and drivers would slingshot past each other as they traded the lead back and forth.

The official count for lead changes was 52 - second-highest all-time figure - but this only includes changes at the start-finish line. A more realistic figure was the unofficial number of 162 lead changes, including the back-and-forth passes during any given lap.

As the race approached 200 laps, the drive to conserve fuel for most drivers. As everyone was looking to draft others to conserve fuel, the lead position seemed to be the least popular one in a field of fuel economy-conscious drivers.

"It was a bit of stupid racing," said Andretti. "Everybody wanted to back off, and no one wanted to take the lead."

Franchitti had driven a solid race, keeping in mind the old maxim that if you want to finish first, you must first finish. "The car was quite evil in traffic at the start, but we improved it at each stop, and at the end it was actually quite good."

In the end, though, consistency was not quite enough, as he wasn't able to match Montoya's and Andretti's pace over the final stretch. "We didn't have enough for the two guys at the front," said Franchitti. "A podium finish is still good, though."

His teammate, Tracy, who had claimed the pole position on Saturday, fared worse. Before the final round of pit stops, Tracy was still battling for the lead, but his car did not handle well in the final stint, dropping him down to seventh position at the end of the race, and 18 points back in the championship.

Congestion in the pits was an issue again at Michigan, too. Even with Speedway's relatively long pit lane and a snail's pace 50 mph pit lane speed limit, a number of near-collisions ensued during the pit stop windows.

In one of the incidents, Moreno exited his pit box just as Vasser was attempting to enter his own box, causing Vasser to miss the pit box, and forcing him to re-pit on the next lap. "They should give penalties for things like that," fumed Vasser.

With his win, Montoya becomes only the second driver to win both the Indianapolis 500 and the Michigan 500, following in the footsteps of Rick Mears. He now has the chance to win the season-ending Marlboro 500 at Fontana, California, and to claim a $1 million bonus.

And, then, the inevitable question - would he really give up all this wheel-to-wheel racing to move to Formula One?

Montoya was most diplomatic on his comments: "Formula One is very difficult to overtake, and here on the road courses it is sometimes the same. If you put Formula One on this track, it would be the same."

So no answers on his future yet - but, for now, we are set for a serious battle for this year's CART FedEx Championship title.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya