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Da Matta Edges Stewart for Driver of the Year

November 22, 2002|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

In the closest vote in the 35-year history of American-driver-of-the-year balloting, CART champion Cristiano da Matta edged Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart and three other drivers for this year's annual award.

Da Matta, leaving CART for a Formula One career with Toyota after tonight's awards banquet in Miami, and Stewart received an equal number of votes from the 17-member panel, but the Brazilian prevailed in the tiebreaker. Also receiving votes in the first-place-only balloting were Steve Kinser of the World of Outlaws and drag racers Larry Dixon and John Force.

"That's cool, it's great," Da Matta said after being notified of his selection. "It complements a great year."

Asked if he might return to CART after his Formula One career, Da Matta diplomatically said, "If I'm still at an age that I can be competitive running CART, then why not?"

Driving a Toyota-powered Lola for Newman-Haas Racing, the 5-foot-4, 130-pound former karting champion from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, won seven races, seven poles and had 10 podium finishes in 19 races. His 74-point margin over Bruno Junqueira, his longtime friend and neighbor from Belo Horizonte, is the second largest in series history. Junqueira has been named to replace Da Matta on the Newman-Haas team next year.

After Da Matta and Stewart deadlocked in the vote, panel chairman Barry Schmoyer invoked a tiebreaker for the first time. On four quarterly ballots, Da Matta had 246 votes to 66 for Stewart. Quarterly winners were Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish Jr., Da Matta, Dixon and NASCAR driver Kurt Busch.

Da Matta's selection ended a string by Winston Cup champions, who had won the last five years and seven of the last eight. Only Force, in 1996, broke the NASCAR monopoly. The last CART driver to win the award was Nigel Mansell in 1993.

The award is given to American drivers in any series in the world and any foreign driver in an American series. Da Matta is the third foreign recipient, joining Britain's Mansell and Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi, who won in 1989.

He is also the fourth Newman-Haas driver to have won the award. Others were Mansell, Mario Andretti and Michael Andretti.

"It's well deserved and makes the season even better," said Paul Newman, co-owner of the Havoline-sponsored car driven by the winner.

Da Matta, who will receive $1 million at tonight's CART banquet, will get a crystal trophy, a custom Indian motorcycle and a Maurice Lacroix Swiss watch as driver of the year.

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