Rivals Look to Derail Target/Chip Ganassi Racing's Bid for Third Consecutive PPG Cup Championship CART Online (March 4, 1998) -- As Target/Chip Ganassi Racing gears up for the opportunity to make Championship Auto Racing Teams history...
Rivals Look to Derail Target/Chip Ganassi Racing's Bid for Third Consecutive PPG Cup Championship
CART Online (March 4, 1998) -- As Target/Chip Ganassi Racing gears up for the opportunity to make Championship Auto Racing Teams history in 1998, several of its rivals in the FedEx Championship Series have shuffled their lineups in an attempt to stymie that bid.
Target/Ganassi has won the past two PPG Cup championships, with Jimmy Vasser (Target Reynard Honda) driving to the 1996 title and Alex Zanardi (Target Reynard Honda) repeating for the team last year.
Now, that twosome chases its third consecutive PPG Cup crown - a feat accomplished only once previously in CART history, by Penske Racing with Rick Mears (1981-82) and Al Unser (1983).
"To win the championship once was great," team owner Chip Ganassi said. "To win it two years in a row is fantastic. But it's a new year, and everyone forgets about what happened last year. So the team is just gonna keep its head down and take it race by race.
"The goal for '98 is the same as it's been in the past, and that's to bring home the PPG Cup. If we're fortunate enough to win it again, then we'll have done it with a lot of hard work and determination."
Several teams revamped their lineups in the off-season in an attempt to derail the Target/Ganassi express. It began when Marlboro Team Penske released Paul Tracy from his contract and hired Andre Ribeiro (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) from Tasman Motorsports to team with Al Unser Jr. (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) this season.
Tracy, a three-time winner in the 1997 PPG Cup series, wasn't idle long. Shortly after his departure from Marlboro Team Penske, he reached an agreement to team with promising sophomore Dario Franchitti at Team KOOL Green, both in KOOL Reynard Hondas.
A couple of weeks after Tracy and Ribeiro changed teams, 1997 CART Rookie of the Year Patrick Carpentier (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes) moved from Bettenhausen Motorsports/Team Alumax to Player's Forsythe Racing, where he'll team with Greg Moore (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes), winner of two CART events last season, to launch a two-pronged attack on the Target/Ganassi tandem.
Another lineup change occurred at Patrick Racing, where Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State Reynard Ford) joined Scott Pruett (Visteon Reynard Ford) after making the move from the Tasman Motorsports Group.
Of course, several strong teams maintained the status quo heading into 1998, among them the PacWest Racing Group, which vaulted into the upper echelon of CART teams with four victories last year, including the first career victories for both Mauricio Gugelmin (Hollywood PacWest Mercedes) and Mark Blundell (Motorola PacWest Mercedes), who won three of the season's final nine events.
Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Special Reynard Honda) finished second in the championship last season behind seven podium finishes, which tied Zanardi for the series lead. De Ferran was remarkably consistent, scoring PPG Cup points in 14 of 17 events, but was kept out of victory circle by a run of tough luck, including at Homestead, where he was sidelined due to contact while leading the race.
Newman/Haas Racing's lineup also remains the same this year, headed by Michael Andretti (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Swift Ford), CART's all-time victory leader, with 36. Andretti debuted the new Swift chassis in spectacular fashion with a win in the season opener here at Homestead last year, but didn't reach victory circle for the remainder of the season. Teammate Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Swift Ford), fully recovered from a broken leg which kept him out of seven events last season, appears on the verge of breaking through for the first career CART victory which has thus far eluded his grasp.
Team Rahal figures to draw a multitude of media attention this season, thanks to "Rahal's Last Ride," as owner/driver Bobby Rahal's (Miller Lite Reynard Ford) final competitive season has been dubbed. The 17-year veteran, CART's all-time leader in career starts (245), will be looking to highlight his farewell campaign with his first victory since 1992. Bryan Herta (Shell Reynard Ford), another driver on the brink of his first CART career triumph, teams with Rahal for the third season.
Team Rahal has made one significant change to its package for 1998. After a long-standing relationship with Goodyear, the team switches to Firestone tires, which won 13 of 17 events last season, including the last 11 in succession.
Experienced drivers poised for breakout seasons include Michel Jourdain Jr. (Herdez/Viva Mexico! Reynard Ford), Richie Hearn (Budweiser Swift Ford) and Max Papis (MCI Reynard Toyota). Jourdain received the STP Most Improved Driver award by vote of his peers last year, while Hearn is counting on his team's switch from a Lola to a Swift chassis and from Goodyear to Firestone tires to help him fulfill the promise he has shown in 20 series starts.
Papis earned top-15 finishes in six of his final seven starts last season, as the Toyota engine became increasingly reliable in the final half of the campaign. He scored PPG Cup points in both 500-mile events, finishing eighth at Michigan and 12th at California, and will be looking to build on that momentum in 1998.
The 1998 FedEx Championship Series rookie crop is among the most impressive in recent memory. It includes Tony Kanaan (LCI International Reynard Honda), the 1997 PPG-Firestone Indy Lights champion, promoted to the Tasman Motorsports Group's Championship Car ride. Helio Castro-Neves (Alumax Reynard Mercedes), the 1997 Indy Lights runner-up, moves from Tasman's Lights program to Bettenhausen Motorsports.
Formula One veteran JJ Lehto (Hogan Motor Leasing Reynard Mercedes) takes over Franchitti at Hogan Racing while KOOL/Toyota Atlantic champion Alex Barron (Castrol-Degree Reynard Toyota) steps into the seat vacated by the retirement of Juan Fangio II.
Barron's teammate, PJ Jones (Castrol-Degree Reynard Toyota), battled through a frustrating 1997 campaign and finished on a high note with a season-best 10th-place finish at California. Other two-car efforts are being mounted at Payton Coyne Racing, where Dennis Vitolo (SmithKline Beecham Consumer Reynard Ford) will team with Jourdain; and at Arciero-Wells Racing, where veteran Hiro Matsushita (Panasonic Duskin Reynard Toyota)is slated to join Papis.
Davis Racing has tabbed second-year driver Arnd Meier (BAAN Business Software Reynard Ford) to pilot its FedEx Championship Series entry this season. An entry for Project Indy is still pending.
The FedEx Championship Series includes a record 19 events this year, including CART's first-ever visits to Japan and Houston. It all starts with the March 15 Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami Presented by Toyota at the Miami-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex, with the promise that the competition will become even more intense as the season goes on.
Source: CART Online