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Kanaan Downplays Pole Position

He qualifies first for Toyota 500 at 232.011 mph, then predicts there will be a lot of lead changes in race.

November 03, 2002|Mike Kupper | Times Staff Writer

FONTANA — Tony Kanaan, the last driver to give it a try, won the pole Saturday for today's Toyota 500 CART champ car race at California Speedway, then allowed as how that dramatic gesture probably didn't mean much.

"It feels good and that's it," he said. "But it doesn't help anything. By Turn 1, I'll probably be third or fourth, but then first again by Turn 4. It's open for everybody. Anyone can win. I think there is going to be a lot of passing for sure. I don't want to predict anything, but I think you'll see a lot of lead changes."

If the race, at 500 miles, CART's longest and its only American superspeedway event of the nearly completed season, is anything like last year's, Kanaan may very well be correct.

A year ago, 19 drivers accounted for 73 lead changes in a late-starting race shortened to 440 miles because of oncoming darkness. Today's field can't duplicate that, if only because there won't be 19 drivers competing. There will be 18, though, and at least the top eight figure to be running at about the same speeds around the two-mile Fontana track.

And this time around, thanks to a couple of rule changes, the race may be more a shootout and less an economy run. In the last several years, because of fuel restraints, drivers were reluctant to lead, preferring to save fuel by tucking in behind another car and riding in the draft. Today, however, cars will start with full tanks, then have 250 gallons of fuel available in the pits, more than enough for a 500-mile race. And pit stops have been mandated every 33 laps, which means at least seven stops for any car going the distance. That may make for complicated scoring, but CART also hopes it makes for great racing.

"Nobody has to worry about the fuel-economy issue anymore, which is great," said Cristiano da Matta, the recently crowned series champion, who qualified third.

Old habits may be hard to break, though, for Da Matta also observed, "You want to be in the front of the pack late, but not leading."

If it comes down to the last lap, figure on Kanaan playing a key role. As he took to the track Saturday in his Honda-powered Lola, fellow Brazilians Bruno Junqueira and Da Matta were at the top of the list, Junqueira in a Lola-Toyota at 231.145 mph, Da Matta in a similar car at 230.575.

And Junqueira was mighty happy to be there.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "I almost spun on my second lap. [The car] was a little loose and that made me nervous, but I just hung on and held my breath. I really wanted the pole today, but that's OK."

Kanaan wanted it too, and was slightly better equipped to get it. It was apparent in his warmup laps that he was going to be fast, then on his first qualifier, he cranked a lap at 232.011 mph, bumping Junqueira over to the second spot.

"That was payback for Japan," Kanaan said, alluding to Junqueira's knocking him off the pole at Motegi, Japan, in April. "I thought I had the pole won there, but he went after me and beat my time. Today, it was the other way around and it sure feels good."

The pole was Kanaan's second this season, fourth of his career.

Michael Andretti, driving a Lola-Honda, qualified fourth at 230.532, and Paul Tracy, also in a Lola-Honda, was fifth at 230.176.

Andretti had hoped for better in his last CART superspeedway race. He is bound for the rival Indy Racing League next season.

"I thought we would be a little bit quicker," he said. "I was hoping to get a lap about 231 mph."

Andretti, CART's leading winner with 42 victories, put himself at the center of a controversy last weekend in Surfers Paradise, Australia, when he suggested that CART officials had snookered him out of a 43rd.

After a wild first-lap crash in the rain, and an hour's delay to clean up the mess, CART had to cut the 70-lap race short. Ordinarily in those conditions, races go one lap more than halfway. That would have been 36 laps at Queensland. Andretti was leading at that point and would have won had the race been called.

Instead, CART ruled that the race would go 44 laps, so all drivers could get in two pit stops, then called it after 40 when rain continued falling. Rookie Mario Dominguez of Mexico was leading by then and became a first-time winner.

"It's a shame politics had to get into it," Andretti said.

In qualifying here, Dominguez was 17th -- twice. He went out early in one car and turned a fast lap at 227.141. Then, hoping to move up the grid, he went out in another car after everyone else had qualified -- and bumped only himself, hitting 227.644, still ahead of Oriol Servia but still behind Toranosuke Takagi.

Today's race would seem fertile ground for any political games. Three of the top five qualifiers are expected to be racing elsewhere when CART opens the 2003 season.

Kanaan will be joining Andretti on an IRL team next season -- Dario Franchitti is going with them as well -- and Da Matta is considered 99% certain to be driving for Toyota in Formula One.

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