Twenty-six drivers started the Marlboro 500 Sunday at California Speedway. Nineteen of them led at least a lap as a CART-record 73 lead changes took place at the start-finish line. And probably that many more on the first and third turns of the two-mile D-shaped oval.
Four laps from the end of the dizzying 440-mile race--cut short 60 miles by darkness--Cristiano da Matta’s margin over Max Papis was 0.007 of a second.
That almost infinitesimal difference was worth $1 million to Da Matta, a 28-year-old Brazilian who drove a black Toyota-powered Lola for Carl Haas and Paul Newman.
The margin stood up because, four laps from the end, Scott Dixon’s crash brought out the eighth caution flag of the long day, in effect ending the race. Just seconds before, Papis and Da Matta had raced down the front straightaway side by side. When they crossed the stripe, Bobby Rahal, Papis’ car owner, said it was too close to call. But the edge was Da Matta’s second victory in as many weeks after taking the street race last Sunday in Surfers Paradise, Australia.
“I still don’t know how I lost the race,” said Papis. “It’s unfortunate that the yellow flag came out. I still think that I beat him. But it was a great race and I accept the results. This is getting to be a habit, coming so close to winning a million.” Two years ago, the Italian driver chased Adrian Fernandez across the finish line in the same $1-million race. “I don’t have anything set for next year yet, so I don’t know if it’s goodbye or see you later.”
Curiously, Papis led the most laps, 54, to 53 for Da Matta, but not the one that counted. “When they shortened the race, it was very good for me,” said Da Matta. “If we had gone the distance I might have had to make a quick stop for fuel. Sometimes it is good to be lucky, but I think it would have been very dangerous if he continued because it was so dark in Turn 3 that I couldn’t see the cars around me.”
An early morning rain that delayed the start an hour caused the race to be shortened, along with 57 laps run under caution, but it didn’t seem to matter to the estimated 70,000 fans peering through a hazy gloom that nearly hid the third turn from the main grandstand. Alex Tagliani, the pole-sitter from Canada, finished third in a Ford Cosworth-Reynard, 0.673 of a second behind the two front-runners.
“We were fast in qualifying, and those last 10 laps today felt like qualifying laps,” Tagliani said. “Up until then it was kind of boring, just driving around and around.”
Rookie Bruno Junqueira was fourth and Tony Kanaan fifth in a tightly bunched finishing pack.
“I thought we could have won the race if the track had stayed green until the end,” said Junqueira, who drives for Chip Ganassi’s Target team. “We were leading with 20 laps to go, and I was hungry for that million dollars.”
It was the kind of a race where Fernandez, who failed to finish when his car blew an engine, started last and made it through the field to take the lead on Lap 115. However, he crashed on a restart and finished 18th.
“This is one of the best cars I have had at a superspeedway,” said CART’s only driver-owner. “Basically, we were waiting for the finishing laps, but as I accelerated on the restart, I lost it. Most likely it was cold tires and I’m 99% sure it was my fault.”
The first lap signaled what kind of a race it would become. Tagliani was leading when they took the green flag, but Da Matta moved from the second row to pass him on the outside of the first turn, only to have Bryan Herta move in front in the third turn to become the official lap leader.
Three laps later, three cars crossed the finish line in a virtual dead heat, and a few laps later there were four cars side by side powering through the first turn. It happened time and again as cars would draft through the corners and go sweeping to the front, easily eclipsing the former CART record of 62 lead changes in 1998 at Michigan International Speedway.
Gil de Ferran, who clinched the CART championship a week ago in Australia, started slowly from his 16th place on the grid and methodically worked his way toward the front. With only 15 laps remaining, he was third and appeared ready to pounce on the $1-million winner’s prize to go with the million he earned as champion.
He faded in the final drive and finished sixth in what probably was Marlboro’s final appearance in CART. The tobacco giant is expected to take its sponsorship with Roger Penske to the Indy Racing League next year in order to have a car in the Indianapolis 500.
“It’s just a shame we couldn’t fight for the win,” said De Ferran. “I was running third when the engine went soft, and we had a puncture in the left rear tire which made the car pick up more under-steer.”
De Ferran is expected to return to CART, however, in another Penske car so that he can make a run at a third consecutive championship. His teammate, Helio Castroneves, who won the Indianapolis 500 this year, is expected to wear the Marlboro colors in the IRL.
Castroneves was swapping leads with Papis, Jimmy Vasser and Memo Gidley when he retired while running second on Lap 86 when his Honda-powered Reynard suddenly lost power.
De Ferran and Kenny Brack, the first car out, had clinched the first and second spots in CART standings, but from third down was decided at Fontana. Michael Andretti, who started the race tied with Castroneves, finished seventh to earn the third spot. Da Matta’s win moved him up to fifth, again one spot ahead of Papis.
“We finished this race and I had never finished a race here before, and it’s a good thing we did because we got the points we needed,” said Andretti, CART’s leading active winner. “It’s unfortunate that CART had to shorten the race because I think had we run the full race our fuel strategy would have worked to our advantage, but it was a little tough to see out there.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
1. Cristiano da Matta, Toyota/Lola
2. Max Papis, Ford/Lola
3. Alex Tagliani, Ford/Reynard
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