CHAMPCAR/CART: Nazareth preview

FedEx Championship Series Heads East For Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented By Toyota At Nazareth Speedway DETROIT (May 2, 2001) - The 2001 FedEx Championship Series has been characterized by the unexpected, both on track and off. One of the ...

FedEx Championship Series Heads East For Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented By Toyota At Nazareth Speedway

DETROIT (May 2, 2001) - The 2001 FedEx Championship Series has been characterized by the unexpected, both on track and off. One of the biggest on-track surprises at this early juncture of the campaign has been the performance of third-year driver Cristiano da Matta of Newman/Haas Racing.

Da Matta (Texaco/Havoline/Kmart Toyota Lola) gave a glimpse of his vast potential last season, when he recorded his first Champ Car victory, and the first in the history of PPI Motorsports, at Chicago Motor Speedway. That triumph, coupled with seven other top-five finishes, helped bring da Matta to the storied Newman/Haas team at the conclusion of the 2000 season.

His task was a large one; to fill the cockpit formerly occupied by Michael Andretti, CART's all-time victory leader, who had recorded 31 of his CART-record 40 wins during 10 seasons with Newman/Haas Racing. If da Matta was at all daunted by the prospect, it hasn't shown in his performance.

With a victory in the season opener at Monterrey, Mexico and podium finishes in each of his first two events, Da Matta has charged into the FedEx Championship Series points lead heading into Round 3, Sunday's Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota at Nazareth Speedway (1 p.m. ET, live, ABC-TV). His two podiums in as many events this season already match his career total of two in 40 starts during the 1999-2000 campaigns.

As the FedEx Championship Series prepares for its first oval race of the season, following the postponement of last Sunday's Firestone Firehawk 600 Presented by Pioneer at Texas Motor Speedway, da Matta, the 1998 Dayton Indy Lights champion, leads the championship with 37 points. He followed his victory at Monterrey with a runner-up effort at Long Beach to take a seven-point (37-30) advantage over defending FedEx Championship Series champion Gil de Ferran of Marlboro Team Penske.

De Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard) is also the defending Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota champion, having driven to Penske Racing's historic 100th Champ Car victory last May. Like da Matta, de Ferran has been on the podium in each of his first two starts of the season, with finishes of second at Monterrey and third at Long Beach.

Based on early results, De Ferran's teammate, Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda Reynard), appears ready to give Team Penske a two-pronged attack on the FedEx Championship Series title. Castroneves captured Round 2 at Long Beach in an utterly dominant performance, collecting 22 championship points by winning from the pole and leading the most race laps.

That moved him to third place in the championship with 27 points, one ahead of Team KOOL Green's Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard). Jimmy Vasser (Patrick Racing Toyota Reynard) of Patrick Racing stands fifth in the title race with 18 points.

Tracy is a two-time winner at Nazareth, with victories in 1994 and '97, both with Marlboro Team Penske. Vasser drove to victory at Nazareth in 1998.

Andretti (Motorola Honda Reynard), who stands sixth in the championship with 12 points, is the most successful of all CART drivers at Nazareth, with two victories (1987, '96) and 10 top-six finishes in 13 career starts. He has led 646 laps, or 10 percent of his CART-career leading total of 6,409 laps led, at Nazareth Speedway.

The FedEx Championship Series schedule gets underway in earnest this weekend, with events scheduled every week or every other week through the season-ending Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota at California Speedway (Nov. 4). The series continues with the Firestone Firehawk 500 on Saturday, May 19, at Twin Ring Motegi in Motegi, Japan.

WHO'S HOT

* FedEx Championship Series points leader Cristiano da Matta (Texaco/Havoline/Kmart Toyota Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing has scored podium finishes in his first two events of the FedEx Championship Series season and as a result maintains the first-ever championship lead of his three-year career. Da Matta, the 1998 Dayton Indy Lights champion, claimed his second career FedEx Championship Series victory at Monterrey, Mexico to open the campaign, and followed with a runner-up finish at Long Beach earlier last month. With 37 points, he leads defending FedEx Championship Series champion Gil de Ferran of Marlboro Team Penske by seven.

* Marlboro Team Penske driver Gil de Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard), the defending FedEx Series champion, has finished on the podium in five of his past seven FedEx Championship Series starts. He also has been among the top five in eight of his past 11, dating to a third-place effort at Chicago Motor Speedway last July. The run also includes finishes of second at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca last year and Monterrey last month; and third at Houston and California Speedway last year and Long Beach this year. De Ferran has also qualified among the top-five drivers for 18 of 23 FedEx Championship Series events, dating to the pole he won for last year's season opener at Homestead.

* Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda Reynard), winner of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach from the pole, registered his seventh consecutive scoring performance and his ninth in the past 10 FedEx Championship Series starts, dating to a victory at Mid-Ohio last year. Also included is a victory at Laguna Seca last year. The 22 points Castroneves collected at Long Beach for winning from the pole and leading all 82 race laps moved him to third place in the FedEx Championship Series championship, with 27 points.

* Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green owns top-four finishes in the first two events of the FedEx Championship Series season, third at Mexico and fourth at Long Beach. He stands fourth in the championship with 26 points, one behind Helio Castroneves.

* Jimmy Vasser (Patrick Racing Toyota Reynard) of Patrick Racing has scored championship points in eight of his past nine FedEx Championship Series starts, dating to a fifth-place finish at Road America last year. The run also includes a victory at Houston last year. Vasser, the 1996 FedEx Championship Series champion in his first year with Patrick Racing, owns finishes of sixth at Mexico and fifth at Long Beach in his first two starts of this season.

* Rookie Nicolas Minassian (Target Toyota Lola) of Target Chip Ganassi Racing has recorded points-paying finishes in each of his first two FedEx Championship Series career starts. He finished 11th in the season opener at Mexico and eighth in Round 2 at Long Beach. Minassian leads all FedEx Championship Series rookies in the chase for the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year Award, with seven points.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

* Nazareth resident Michael Andretti (Motorola Honda Reynard) of Team Motorola has finished among the top six drivers in 10 of 13 career starts at Nazareth Speedway, including victories in 1987 and '96. The list also includes runner-up efforts in 1988, '92 and '97, third in 1991, fifth in 1989 and '90 and sixth in 1999 and 2000. He is also a two-time pole winner at Nazareth (1987, '92) and has led 646 laps at the venue, more than any other active driver.

* Paul Tracy owns a pair of victories (1994, '97) and five podium finishes in 10 career starts at Nazareth, including third-place performances in 1992, '93 and '99. He also owns two poles at the venue and has finished out of the top 10 only once in 10 career starts. He has led 544 laps at Nazareth in his career.

* Defending Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota and FedEx Championship Series champion Gil de Ferran has finished among the top four drivers in three of his six career starts at Nazareth Speedway. Last year's victory was his first on an oval and the historic 100th Champ Car win in Team Penske history. He also finished fourth in 1997 and '98.

* Jimmy Vasser owns a victory at Nazareth in 1998 and has scored championship points in five of seven career starts there, including finishes of fifth in 1997, seventh in 1996 and 2000 and 11th in 1999.

MANUFACTURING SUCCESS

* Toyota-powered drivers have won four of the past five FedEx Championship Series events contested on ovals, getting victories last season from Juan Montoya at Milwaukee, Michigan and Gateway and from Cristiano da Matta at Chicago. Only Christian Fittipaldi's victory for Ford in the season finale at California Speedway interrupted the run. However, Fittipaldi is Toyota-powered this season as his Newman/Haas Racing team switched engines at the conclusion of the 2000 campaign.

* Honda-powered drivers have won the past three FedEx Championship Series events contested at Nazareth, with victories from Jimmy Vasser (1998), Juan Montoya (1999) and Gil de Ferran last year.

MILESTONES

* When he takes the green flag for Sunday's Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota in his hometown of Nazareth, Pa., Michael Andretti will equal the CART record of 273 career starts currently held by Al Unser Jr. Andretti's first career start came at Las Vegas in 1983 in a race won by his father, Mario. His last 127 starts have come consecutively, dating to the 1994 season opener at Australia, which he won. Michael Andretti is also CART's all-time leader in victories (40) and laps led (6,409) and is second in career pole positions (32). His 273rd start would rank him fifth with Unser Jr. in all-time Champ Car history (1909-current). Mario Andretti, Michael's father, is the all-time leader with 407 starts.

NOTEWORTHY

* Roger Penske, owner of the eight-time CART champion Penske Racing team, will serve as Grand Marshal for this weekend's Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota at Nazareth Speedway. Penske built the speedway on the site formerly occupied by a dirt track, and the venue has hosted a FedEx Championship Series event annually since 1987. Penske Racing is the most storied team in Champ Car history, with 105 victories 127 pole positions and 10 championships. The team is the defending FedEx Championship Series champion with driver Gil de Ferran and currently campaigns de Ferran and teammate Helio Castroneves in the 2001 FedEx Championship Series. "We are honored to have Roger Penske serve as the Grand Marshal for our CART race," said Nazareth Speedway president Craig Rust. "It was Roger's vision that made Nazareth Speedway a reality and brought world-class CART and NASCAR racing to the Lehigh Valley. We are appreciative of Roger's support and everything he has done for Nazareth Speedway."

* Elf Racing Fuels, the Official Fuel Supplier of Championship Auto Racing Teams, is donating a "Kid Racer" - a child's electric open-wheel race car - to Sacred Heart Hospital in Allentown, Pa. on Thursday at 3 p.m. in conjunction with this weekend's Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota. Herdez/Bettenhausen driver Michel Jourdain Jr. (Herdez Ford Lola) will make the presentation. Jourdain will also spend time discussing racing with child patients as part of his visit.

* Guitarist Mark Knopfler, who penned a song entitled "Speedway at Nazareth" which appears on his latest album, Sailing to Philadelphia, visited Nazareth Speedway last Friday, in the midst of a tour to support the album. "Speedway at Nazareth" which contains a CART theme, is a song about perseverance, aspiration and determination. The song grew out of conversations between Knopfler and former CART driver Stefan Johansson, a good friend.

As part of his visit, Knopfler received a ride around the race track with two of his band members.

"This place is beautiful," he said. "It's pristine. But I imagine it could be quite a nightmare at times for the drivers. It looks difficult to drive. It has different banking and elevation changes and Turn Two ever seems to end. It was great to come here and see the track that I wrote about." Knopfler also visited the world-famous Martin Guitar factory in Nazareth before returning to Philadelphia for Friday evening's performance.

ON THE AIR

* Qualifying for the Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota will air 12:30 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2. CART 2Day airs 11 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2, while ABC-TV's live race broadcast begins 1 p.m. ET. Twenty of 21 FedEx Championship Series events are being televised live on ABC-TV or ESPN, and 18 are being televised live on Eurosport, a European network which reaches 250 million viewers in 54 countries. Sunday's race will also air on the CART Radio Network and on CART's official website, at www.cart.com .

-CART-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Stefan Johansson , Al Unser Jr. , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Nicolas Minassian , Christian Fittipaldi , Paul Tracy , Mario Andretti , Chip Ganassi , Roger Penske , Cristiano da Matta , Michel Jourdain
Teams Team Penske , Team Penske