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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

CART Contenders Try to Drive Home Their Points

October 27, 2000|SHAV GLICK

After 19 races that have produced 10 winners, the FedEx CART champ car series comes down to Sunday's season-ending Marlboro 500 at California Speedway, and five drivers still can win the $1-million champion's bonus.

Gil de Ferran, latest in a long line of Roger Penske's winning drivers, holds the lead but it is a precarious one. De Ferran is only five points ahead of Adrian Fernandez, last year's Marlboro 500 winner.

Paul Tracy and rookie Kenny Brack are 19 points back, and Roberto Moreno, Fernandez's teammate, is mathematically in the running but would need a near-miracle to make up the 22 points he is in arrears.

There are, at most, 22 points available, 20 for winning and one each for winning the pole on Saturday and leading the most laps on Sunday.

Realistically, the battle is between the Brazilian, de Ferran, in one of Penske's Reynard-Hondas, and the Mexican, Fernandez, in Pat Patrick's Reynard-Ford Cosworth. Still, past performances show that anything can happen. In the most recent race, in Australia, five of six contenders failed to score a point and Fernandez, by winning, vaulted from fifth to second.

"There is such an unpredictability to 500-mile races that it is impossible to think about anything except trying to win," de Ferran said. "The competition in CART is so close that the unexpected can happen in any race. Look at what happened to most of the leaders in Australia. You just never know what might happen."

In Australia, de Ferran and defending series champion Juan Montoya collided in the first turn of the first lap, knocking both out of the race and seriously tightening the points race.

"Certainly I have taken a lot of flak for that incident, but I think there has been a misunderstanding," de Ferran said. "The belief is that I was trying to overtake Montoya when, as a matter of fact, I was trying to let him by. We just sort of ran out of room.

"I was probably half a car length ahead, but not enough to dive underneath so I tried to tuck in behind him going through the first left-hander. But we were so squeezed together we had nowhere to go. When his right rear wheel touched my left front, that was it. I tried to get out of his way, but I couldn't."

For de Ferran to win his first CART crown, he must finish ahead of Fernandez, or if Fernandez wins, de Ferran must finish second. After that, it gets more complicated. If Fernandez finishes third, fourth or fifth, de Ferran must finish within two places of him. If Fernandez finishes sixth, de Ferran must finish at least 10th, or if Fernandez finishes seventh, de Ferran must finish at least 12th.

Said Fernandez, "If we keep doing what we have been doing, we will be fine. I don't put myself into the place where I worry about the championship. I look at it like another race, try to win it and at the end of the race we'll see where we are. Whatever happens, happens.

"One thing is sure. Half of Mexico will be there."

For Tracy or Brack to win, either must win the race while de Ferran finishes 12th or worse and collects no bonus points.

"I think we still have a chance," Tracy said. "Obviously, we need a lot of good luck. Our plan is to go out and take control of the race and win it. That is what it will take to win the championship, and if we don't win but win the race we still get a million bucks."

The race, like the FedEx championship, will pay $1 million to the winner.

Said Brack, who won the Indy Racing League championship two years ago and the Indianapolis 500 last year before joining Team Rahal this season as a CART rookie:

"We can't do it on our own. We need bad luck for Gil and Adrian. If that happens, what we can do is hope we win the race. If the cards fall our way, we can do both.

"All we can worry about is ourselves. Personally, if we won, it would give me a feeling of satisfaction knowing that our crew in our first year with a new driver was able to come together as a team and perform at a championship level."

Moreno's task is more direct. He must win the pole, the race and lead the most laps and de Ferran must fail to score any points.

Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 champion, is tied with Moreno but he cannot win the championship because even if he won the race, he would be tied with de Ferran and would lose on the tiebreaker--highest finishes.

Last year's championship battle ended in a tie, Montoya winning a tiebreaker over Dario Franchitti because he had seven victories to three for the Scotsman. Montoya trailed by nine points before the Fontana finale last year, but when he finished fourth and Franchitti 10th, they were tied with 212 points.

Saturday's qualifying, normally not too significant for a 500-mile race, will take on added importance because of its one-point bonus.

"Qualifying has no bearing on the race, but for us it is very important because we must get every point we can," said Brack, who has never raced at California Speedway.

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