With three races remaining in the PPG Indy Car series, indications point to one of the closest finishes since Championship Auto Racing Teams was formed in 1979. It can't be the closest, however, unless it ends in a tie, because only one point separated champion Al Unser and his son, Al Jr., after the 1985 season.
After 14 races, Michael Andretti leads Bobby Rahal, 176-171, with defending champion Al Unser Jr. and Indy 500 winner Rick Mears in the hunt with 153 and 133, respectively.
Andretti has finished second three times (1990, to Al Jr.; and 1986 and 1987, to Rahal), and he desperately wants to win this year so he can drive a year with No. 1 on his Newman-Haas Lola before heading to Europe with hopes of duplicating his father's feat of winning a world Formula One championship. Mario Andretti won three national championships before becoming Formula One champion in 1978 and won the Indy car title again in 1984.
Rahal is switching teams next season, and he wants to leave team owner Maury Kraines with his first championship before joining Pat Patrick's forces in 1992. Technically, Kraines was co-owner of Unser's winning car last year, but followers of the Galles-Kraco team consider Unser as Galles' driver and Rahal as Kraines'.
Rahal is 38 and each victory is becoming sweeter because it could be the last. Rahal has won only one race the past two years but is near the top because of his consistency. He has finished in the top four in 11 of 14 races this season.
"At 38, the future looks shorter than it did at 28, so I want everything going for me as much as possible," Rahal said. "I'm obviously not going to race forever. That makes every year I spend racing that much more important."
Michael Andretti is 28 and his future is bright, but he is impatient and winning the national championship has become almost an obsession.
"This is a day I'll savor for the rest of my life, taking the points lead with only three races left in the season," he said after his victory last Sunday at Mid-Ohio moved him ahead of Rahal for the first time.
Andretti has won six races this year, including the past two, at Mid-Ohio and Vancouver. This equals the CART season record. No one else has won more than two this season.
After much speculation that this would be his final year before tackling Formula One, Andretti recently signed a one-year contract with team owners Carl Haas and Paul Newman to drive another year with his father as his teammate.
"I've had a great time driving with Dad the last three years," Michael Andretti said. "Now, I want to finish this year on a positive note, come back next year and then try Formula One. Most important right now, though, is going out and winning the next three races."
Remaining are two road races, the Texaco/Havoline 200 on Sunday at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and the Toyota Monterey Grand Prix on Oct. 20 at Laguna Seca, and an oval race Oct. 6, the Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix at Nazareth, Pa.
Unser holds out hope of repeating as champion, although he acknowledges that "it takes a little more dedication to keep that No. 1 than it took to get it in the first place, but we definitely want to keep it for Galles-Kraco."
Mears, as winner of the season's two most important races, the Indianapolis 500 and the Michigan 500, would like to win his fourth national title to go with his four Indy 500 victories.
"We'd like to be in a better position, but there could be a lot of shuffling among the top guys, and the last three courses should be good for our car," Mears said. Last year he finished third at Elkhart Lake and second at Nazareth. He won at Laguna Seca in 1989.
There are a maximum of 66 points available in the three races, 20 for winning each race and one each for fastest qualifier and leading the most laps.
MIDGETS--Drivers of the United States Auto Club western regional championships will get another chance to get their cars tuned for the Turkey Night Grand Prix on Nov. 28 when they race Saturday night in a 40-lap main event at Saugus. Defending champion Sleepy Tripp and Page Jones, Parnelli's youngest son, have six regional victories each.
STOCK CARS--Saugus Speedway champions already decided include Lance Hooper, sportsman; Dave Blankenship, street stock, and David Phipps, Grand American modified. Final points races for hobby, jalopy, two-seater and minis will be held Saturday night along with the USAC midget program. . . . Chuck Miinch nosed out former champion John Borneman for the Cajon Speedway sportsman title, but Borneman was the highest Southern California driver in the national Winston Racing Series standings. Borneman finished fourth in the Sunbelt Region, two points ahead of Miinch. Larry Phillips of Springfield, Mo., was the national winner.
The NASCAR Southwest Tour, which tightened last week when Ron Hornaday Jr. won at Saugus before a capacity crowd of 6,264, moves to Las Vegas Raceway on Saturday night. Hornaday, 33, closed to within 61 points of Rick Carelli, with Jon Paques four more back. Only two races remain after Las Vegas: Oct. 12 at Bakersfield's Mesa Marin Raceway and Nov. 2 at Phoenix International Raceway as part of Winston Cup weekend. . . . Street stocks will be featured Friday night at Ventura Raceway and Saturday night at Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino and Cajon Speedway.
MOTORCYCLES--Final points races to qualify riders for the U.S. Speedway Nationals are tonight at Lake Perris Raceway and Friday night at Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. The U.S. final will be Oct. 12 at Costa Mesa, with Mike Faria of Colton defending champion. The California state championships are Sept. 28 at Glen Helen Park in San Bernardino.
SPRINT CARS--The World of Outlaws will be at Santa Maria Speedway for complete programs Friday and Saturday night and then run Sunday at Bakersfield Speedway in Oildale. . . . The Outlaws race scheduled Sept. 28 at Imperial Raceway in El Centro has been canceled, according to Agajanian-Foote Promotions.
SPORTS CARS--Grand Prix driver Martin Brundle of England has been added to the Jaguar team for the season-ending International Motor Sports Assn. Camel GT event Oct. 13 at Del Mar. Brundle, the 1988 Del Mar winner, will race as a teammate of Davy Jones.