FONTANA, Calif. (Oct. 24, 2000) - The closest points battle in Dayton Indy Lights Championship history will come to a record-setting conclusion Sunday in the season-ending race at California Speedway where the drivers championship for CART's ...
FONTANA, Calif. (Oct. 24, 2000) - The closest points battle in Dayton Indy Lights Championship history will come to a record-setting conclusion Sunday in the season-ending race at California Speedway where the drivers championship for CART's top-rung development series will be decided for the third time in the past four years.
Championship leader Scott Dixon (Invensys/Powerware/PacWest Lights Lola) and Dorricott Racing teammates Townsend Bell (DirecPC Lola) and Casey Mears (Dorricott Racing/Sooner Trailer Lola) are separated by just five points heading into the Fontana finale. Sunday's 50-lap/100 mile sprint on the two-mile high-banked oval is scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. local time and sets the stage for the season-ending FedEx Championship Series Marlboro 500 that runs later that afternoon. The Dayton Indy Lights race will be telecast in same-day coverage on ESPN2 later on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET (3 p.m. PT).
A double milestone for the Dayton Indy Lights Championship, the points race is the closest in the 15-year history of the series and the first time three drivers have taken the battle down to the season-ending event. The previous closest title race was the 1989 championship that saw eventual series titleist Mike Groff and Tommy Byrne enter the last race of the year at Laguna Seca Raceway separated by eight points. The Indy Lights championship will also be decided at California Speedway for the second consecutive year and third time since CART began conducting its season-ending event weekend at Fontana in 1997. Current Champ Car rookie Oriol Servia edged Mears for the title in 1999 while Tony Kanaan beat Helio Castroneves - now both race winners on the FedEx Championship Series trail - for the crown in the inaugural CART open-wheel race at California Speedway in 1997.
With a maximum 22 points available to a driver and the unpredictable nature of Indy Lights racing on superspeedways such as the California circuit, the championship will be wide open at Fontana. Dayton Indy Lights uses a "spec" (short for specification) rules format that requires all drivers to race identical Indy Lights Lola T97/20s powered by sealed GM V6 engines. This equal race car format is at its best in superspeedway races where drivers employ nose-to-tail drafting techniques while running three and even four abreast at flat-out speeds in the 190 mph range. Multiple position and lead changes every lap are common, and the outcome of the race and the championship will likely not be decided until the 50th and final lap.
Dixon, 20, leads the standings with 134 points, four clear of Bell and five ahead of Mears. Each driver has won at least one race this season, but Dixon tops all drivers and has the edge in all tiebreaker scenarios with five victories. He scored his most recent win in Round Nine at Laguna Seca Raceway last month where he left on the brink of clinching the championship with a season-high 42 point lead. He needed only to gain two points on the field to clinch one race later in St. Louis, but instead failed to finish for the first time this season when he hit the wall between Turns 3 and 4 while running second to Bell in the early going. Dixon was uninjured, but lost more than half of his points lead to Bell who led every lap from the pole for a 22-point sweep and his second win of the season.
Mears finished second to Bell at St. Louis and then rallied for his own 22-point take at Houston one race ago where he led every lap from the pole. While Bell finished second for Dorricott Racing's third one-two finish of the year, Dixon failed to finish for a second straight race when he was uninjured in a multi-car accident after defending California winner Jonny Kane (KOOL Lola) blew a gearbox and coated the track with oil. Like St. Louis, Dixon needed only to gain two points on the competition at Houston to clinch the title. Instead, he didn't score a point for the second consecutive race while Bell and Mears each racked up 38 points in the last two races to solidly enter the championship picture.
Dixon's recent collapse is far from indicative of the rest of his performance this year. Driving this year for PacWest Lights in his second Indy Lights season, Dixon won the year's opening races at Long Beach and Milwaukee and picked up a victory at Chicago for the second year in a row in July. He then scored back-to-back wins at Vancouver and Laguna Seca before the recent points drought. The young New Zealander led at Fontana last year but dropped from contention after pitting for a cut tire.
Prior to his St. Louis sweep, Bell, 25, kept second-place finisher Dixon behind him to win his first race at Mid-Ohio in August. The California native - he was born in San Francisco and now lives in Costa Mesa - also wrapped up Rookie of the Year honors with his runner-up showing at Houston. He finished fourth in the year's first superspeedway race at Michigan Speedway in July and is also leading the $10,000 Bosch Platinum+4 Speedway Challenge. This winner take all award will be paid to the driver earning the most points in the year's five oval track races and Bell leads with 58 points heading into the Fontana finale. Mears is second with 45 points and Dixon is third with 43.
Mears, 22, is known as an oval track specialist but has achieved his top results in his best Indy Lights season to date on road courses. He set the fastest race lap on his way to a fifth-place finish at Mid-Ohio and earned his first career pole on the Laguna Seca road course where he led the opening race laps before Dixon took the lead and the win. Houston marked his first win in 47 career starts, his second career pole and his first 22-point sweep. He also set the fastest race lap in the Texas race.
Of the three title contenders, Mears has the most success and experience on superspeedway circuits. He finished second at Michigan both this year and last and has unofficially led partial laps or run up front in each of his six superspeedway starts. Mears also set the fastest race lap in Indy Lights history at California Speedway in 1999 when he lapped at 193.643 mph. He fell short in his bid to challenge Servia for the title in that race after a late contact incident dropped him from contention.
Mears will also make history this weekend when he suits up for his first FedEx Championship Series start immediately following the Dayton Indy Lights finale. Mears will debut in a one-off drive with Team Rahal in a WorldCom-sponsored Ford Reynard. Mears is the first driver to run CART Champ Car and Indy Lights races in the same day.
A championship spoiler at Fontana could be Michigan winner Felipe Giaffone (Hollywood Lola) who is fourth in the standings with 111 points. Despite a third-place finish at Houston, Giaffone was eliminated from championship contention by a single point, but he could rise to as high as second in the final standings if circumstances go his way in Fontana. Giaffone earned his first career win at Michigan in his 40th race start in July and has always performed well on superspeedways. He finished second at California in 1998 and third at Michigan last year.
The teammates of the title contenders could also join Giaffone as major players in the eventual outcome of the Fontana race and championship. Portland winner Jason Bright (Dorricott Racing Lola) partners Bell and Mears at Dorricott Racing and could be a critical drafting partner for both drivers. Dixon in turn has an experienced ally in teammate Tony Renna (Motorola/PacWest Lights Lola) who won at Michigan in 1998 and finished third at Fontana that same year. Renna also won the pole at both superspeedway races in 1998 and was challenging Mears and Giaffone for the lead at Michigan this season only to have the race end under caution. Bright and Renna are tied for fifth place in the championship with 91 points, but neither driver can finish any higher than fourth in the year-end standings.
Kane's victory from the pole at Fontana last year was his first in the Dayton Indy Lights Championship and allowed him to edge Dixon for 1999 Rookie of the Year honors by a single point. He earned his second career victory in Round Three of the 2000 championship at Detroit, but that has proved to be one of the few bright spots of an otherwise frustrating season. Kane has finished only five races and missed the Chicago race completely when he damaged his race car beyond repair that weekend in a practice accident.
Kane's KOOL teammate Jeff Simmons (KOOL Lola), second-year driver Chris Menninga (Mi-Jack Lola) and top Mexican driver Mario Dominguez (Herdez/Pegaso Lola) should also be in the hunt at Fontana. Another rookie, Simmons' KOOL Lola is engineered by his older brother Chris Simmons who finished second at Fontana in 1997. Menninga ran in the lead pack at California last year and qualified on the outside pole at Michigan to his teammate Giaffone at Michigan this season. Dominguez was the only driver to finish in the top five at both superspeedway races in 1999.
Bell, Mears, Simmons, Renna and Menninga are part of a series-high entry of seven Americans heading to Fontana. Brothers Geoff Boss (Cross Pens/Lacoste/ITIS Lola) and Andy Boss (Cross Pens/Lacoste/ITIS Lola) complete the line up, driving for Lucas Motorsports. Drivers from the U.S. clinched the 2000 Dayton Indy Lights Nation's Cup one race ago in Houston.
Mexico also has a strong entry of five drivers set for the California Speedway finale. In addition to Dominguez, other drivers from Mexico heading to Fontana include veteran Rodolfo Lavin (Corona/Modelo/SportsYA.com Lola) and rookies Luis Diaz (Quaker State Lola), Rolando Quintanilla (Telmex/Prodigy Internet Lola) and Rudy Junco (Mexpro/PrecioBase.com Lola). Dominguez and Diaz are teammates at Team GO, Lavin drives for Brian Stewart Racing and Quintanilla, who debuted at California last year, is teammates with Giaffone and Menninga at Conquest.
Junco teams with veteran Derek Higgins (Mexpro/PreciBase.com Lola), a four-time Dayton Indy Lights race winner who is running five of the year's final six races with the first-year team. Higgins gave the first-year Mexpro team its best results to date with seventh-place finishes at Mid-Ohio and Vancouver and a top qualifying effort of third at Houston.