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For Some, Finish Was Worth Its Wait in Gold

Auto racing: Fittipaldi wins rain-delayed Marlboro 500, De Ferran wins CART title, earning each $1 million.


FONTANA — After two days, 15 blown engines, 59 lead changes among 12 drivers and 85 laps run under a yellow caution flag, it was perhaps inevitable that the Marlboro 500 would end on a caution period Monday at California Speedway.

Despite the carnage, the day turned into a Brazilian holiday and well worth the effort of the estimated 45,000 fans who returned for the finish of the suspended CART race.

Gil de Ferran of Sao Paulo won $1 million after his third-place finish clinched the FedEx CART championship for Roger Penske's Marlboro team. It was Penske's 10th driver championship but the first since 1994, when Al Unser Jr. won.

"I think the main thing in Gil's winning the championship is when you think about how things turned around from last year," said an overjoyed Penske, whose team went nearly three years without a victory.

"This wasn't Gil's win, or my win, it was a team win. To win here in California is very special to me."

Penske built California Speedway on the ruins of a dilapidated steel mill before selling it last year to International Speedway Corp., headed by Bill France.

Christian Fittipaldi of Rio de Janeiro won $1 million by bringing home the Ford-powered Lola of Paul Newman and Carl Haas in first place. Fittipaldi, nephew of former Formula One and CART champion Emerson Fittipaldi, became the 11th winner in 20 races this year, a series record.

A third Brazilian, Roberto Moreno, finished second to make it a 1-2-3 finish for the South Americans.

The first American, and first non-Brazilian, was Casey Mears, driving in his first CART champ car race. Mears, nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears and son of former off-road champion Roger Mears, also finished fourth in the Indy Lights race Sunday. Mears, 22, led for 10 laps late in Monday's race.

Only six cars were running after a 3-hour, 38-minute race that actually began Sunday before it was suspended after 33 laps because of rain.

The final yellow flag appeared after Alex Tagliani crashed two laps from the end.

It was reminiscent of a 1982 race at Riverside International Raceway where only four cars finished--and two were driven by the Mears brothers. Rick was the winner and Roger finished fourth, five laps back.

De Ferran, from the moment he qualified with a closed-course record speed of 241.428 mph on Saturday, appeared to have the fastest car, even though he led only 23 of the 250 laps.

"We knew our greatest challenge would be to make it to the finish of the race," said an emotional De Ferran after receiving the Vanderbilt Cup as series champion. "It was a tough decision to make to hang around back in the pack and not go for the lead even when I knew I could run 230 [mph] by myself. But I would never have been able to forgive myself if I had lost my engine pushing too hard."

It was a wise decision because it seemed when anyone showed a dazzling burst of speed, it would not be long before a huge plume of smoke and fire in the rear end would send them spinning into the wall or slowing to a stop.

De Ferran was driving a Honda-powered Reynard and it was not lost on him, or pit boss Penske, that all the other Hondas, driven by teammate Helio Castroneves, Shinji Nakano, Dario Franchitti and Paul Tracy [on Sunday], had their engines go up in smoke.

Castroneves had been leading and appeared likely to make it a $2-million day for the Penske team when his engine exploded, oiling his tires and sending his red and white car backward into the first-turn wall in the day's most violent crash. He was running about 240 mph and had just passed Moreno for the lead on Lap 226.

The young Brazilian was taken to Loma Linda Hospital after complaining of neck pain and a bruised ankle. Also hospitalized was Tagliani because of mid-back, chest and abdominal pain.

The wildest explosion occurred on Lap 88 when Tony Kanaan, after a burst of speed that swept him past De Ferran and on the heels of leader Juan Montoya, had his expiring motor fill the first turn with billowing clouds of smoke. Michael Andretti and Oriol Servia became victims of the blind spot when they crashed.

"It was a white out," Andretti said. "I couldn't see anything. I went high, but I guess I got in Servia's way. It's a really big disappointment to end the race and my 10 years with Newman-Haas this way."

Andretti has announced plans to switch to Team Green next year.

De Ferran almost suffered the same fate as Andretti.

"There was so much smoke, I couldn't tell where the cars were," said De Ferran. "I think the Lord was definitely on my side, because at one point I was looking at Michael's face coming at me. We were nose to nose. I flat-spotted my tires on that, but I came in, the guys checked the car, I went back out and was OK."

Montoya, attempting to win his third 500-mile race of the year, dropped out because of mechanical problems on Lap 219. The Colombian, who was in his final CART race before returning to Formula One next year, led 33 laps.

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