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Andretti Gets What’s Given

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you like high-speed passing on the race track, the 28th running of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was no place to be.

But if you like pit strategy and controversial pit accidents, Sunday was a great day.

The only time there was a pass on the track for the lead during 90 laps around the 1.97-mile seaside circuit was when Brazil’s Cristiano da Matta swept past pole-sitter Jimmy Vasser on the outside going through the first turn of the first lap.

Da Matta appeared to be a runaway winner until he was taken out in the pits by Mexico’s Adrian Fernandez. Vasser should have taken over the leader’s mantle, but he was snookered by Michael Andretti and the Motorola crew.

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The veteran Andretti, who won the race in 1986 and whose father Mario won it three times, finished 0.466 seconds ahead of Vasser as U.S. drivers took the first two positions in a CART race for the first time since 1996 when Andretti and Bobby Rahal ran one-two at Vancouver. Andretti was driving a Honda-powered Reynard for Barry Green, Vasser a Ford Cosworth-Lola for Rahal.

Never mind that it was mostly a parade race, the huge crowd loved it as two Americans battled for the win over the final laps. Grand Prix officials announced a three-day attendance of 210,000, of which probably 90,000 were jammed around the downtown circuit Sunday despite cool, foggy weather.

Vasser was quick to admit that he was probably asleep at the switch after making his final pit stop, not thinking about the two drivers who did not pit at that time--Andretti and Italy’s Max Papis.

“I never gave Michael or [third-place finisher] Max a thought in the equation when I made my last pit stop,” Vasser said. “All I was thinking about were Kenny Brack and the other guys who had been chasing me. So we assumed we were going to pick up the pace car and be in the lead. I slowed a little to save fuel, but I should have hustled the car up to the pace car.

“They just had the right strategy today. It goes to show you that sometimes the fastest car doesn’t always win. I think Da Matta had the car to beat, but he had trouble too. That’s what makes racing so exciting.”

Vasser and the other race leaders pitted on Lap 61, but Andretti and Papis, who had been out of sequence earlier, did not pit until Lap 64.

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“When you start at the back of the pack [15th] you have to do some gambling, and that’s just what we did,” said the 39-year-old Andretti. “I had clean laps when I stayed out [after Vasser pitted] and I drove as hard as I could. We had a great car, but we had to have some great luck too. If we’d had to come in a lap or two sooner, we might never have made it, but when I ran my fastest laps I knew Jimmy and the other guys were on cold tires.”

Due to mandatory pit stops every 29 laps, Andretti was due to come in on Lap 64 and as luck would have it, rookie Mario Dominguez of Mexico hit the tire wall in the first turn and brought out a full course yellow.

With Vasser dawdling along in what he thought was the lead, Andretti and Papis came flying out of the pits still in front.

With 29 laps still remaining, Vasser passed Papis and looked as if he might reel in Andretti, but once he got close he could not get by.

“This place is very special for me, this is where I won my first race, back in 1986,” said Andretti. “It’s also special to have Jimmy next to me, two Americans on the podium. You don’t see that very often.”

Then he looked at Papis and added, “And a great day for Italians too.”

“This was more than a podium finish,” said Papis. “It is like a win for Sigma Autosport because it is their best finish ever. And we did it without even being in the car since [the last race in] Mexico more than a month ago, and because we did not test, and because we have only one car and no backup.”

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It was the 42nd career win for Andretti, the all-time CART leader and third behind father Mario (52) and A.J. Foyt (67) in open-wheel Indy-type car victories.

Had there not been a pit accident on Lap 33, however, there probably would be no need for discussion of race tactics by either Andretti or Vasser.

Da Matta, who had led by as many as eight seconds and seemed unbeatable while seeking his fourth consecutive victory, was exiting the pits when Fernandez was coming in. When Fernandez dove into his pit stall, he cut off Da Matta, forcing the leader’s car into the wall where he rammed a stack of tires. It took about 10 seconds for Da Matta’s Newman-Haas crew to push his car back into position and get it restarted.

This was enough to drop the Brazilian to 16th place, from where he wasn’t able to contend again. He finished eighth.

Da Matta blamed the incident not on Fernandez, but on poor pit selection by his team.

“I think we made a mistake to choose the pit spot [close to the pit entry], and we learned from our experience today,” he said. “If you are running well in the race, you pit and then have to exit your box when everyone else is coming in. There is a lot more possibility that something is going to go wrong.

“I saw Adrian coming in as I was merging from my pit box. I didn’t expect him to brake and turn in so quickly. I don’t blame him, and I also don’t think I did anything wrong. We were hooked up today, but being in the wrong end of pit lane bit us.”

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Fernandez, the only car owner-driver in the race, blamed Da Matta’s crew for the incident.

“They called Da Matta out when I was coming in, and I was already ahead of him,” the veteran Mexican driver said. “They just threw him right in front of me. Of course, we lost a lot of time and some positions too.”

Said Tom Anderson, managing director of Fernadez’s team: “If someone would have said that Cristiano da Matta would be parked in our pits during one of our stops, I would have found that a little hard to believe, but in essence that’s what happened.”

The blow was not only to Da Matta’s Newman-Haas team, but also to Toyota, which was hoping that he would bring the manufacturer its first victory in the race it has sponsored for the last 28 years. The first Toyota finisher was Brack, in fourth.

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