Six races, six different winners - one of the most competitive season-starters in FedEx Championship Series history. Lurking just behind that fan-pleasing
leader board are several additional consistent performers who have served to make Champ Car racing fans believe that the Y2K season could end up with ten…maybe even a dozen names inscribed in the record book before the final checkered flag flies at Fontana.
Next, the Champ Cars head for the 2.346-mile narrow "street" circuit at Belle Isle for the Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix of Detroit. Coming off of two bullring events, CART drivers must now readapt to turning, shifting and concrete barriers. Setting up and qualifying are critical at Detroit…drivers must make the most of pre-qualifying practices and get in every possible lap because there is never a pre-event test at CART's street courses.
1999 Detroit Grand Prix winner, Dario Franchitti, (who started last year's race from the second row…and who has recently moved into the top-10 in the Y2K points race) says: "Detroit is a welcome sight on the schedule! Having swept Detroit last year (Team Kool Green co-pilot, Paul Tracy finished in P2) everyone at Team Kool Green is heading there with the intention of being on the podium again."
Regarding the circuit itself, Dario added: "…it suits me just fine. Though there's only one really good place to pass (Turn 3) I like the combination of slow and fast corners and the way it really emphasizes driver skill. You have to be on top of it at all times…anticipating traffic and working your race strategy."
Our latest race-winner, Juan Pablo Montoya, secured Toyota's breakthrough CART victory in his Ganassi/Team Target Lola at Milwaukee. Could the Montoya juggernaut now be back on track to resume its 1999 dominance with its all-new package?
Max Papis, Paul Tracy, Adrian Fernandez, Michael Andretti and Gil de Ferran all know that to at least some extent they owe their early-season victories to luck; to both their own good racing fortune and to the condition in which Montoya's still-emerging power plant - plus a few other minor factors -had kept Juan P out of victory lanes prior to the Milwaukee event.
Frankly, Montoya's five co-winners should also feel lucky in the knowledge that Toyota's breakthrough certainly might have come sooner. Juan's last three starts have been from the pole position and teammate Jimmy Vasser has been a consistent finisher. Jimmy has been able to nurse his potentially volatile Toyota engines masterfully while Montoya, despite leading more than 40% of the laps run this year, has struggled to finish races.
Also, Cristiano da Mata in his PPI/Pioneer Reynard-Toyota, has shown flashes of speed and brilliance. He has finished and scored points in outings in which his aggressiveness has equaled Juan P's.
While Toyota's newfound competitiveness appears to be emerging, the six-pack of winners has also been lucky in that Mercedes-powered teams have been struggling. Other than Big Mo Gugelmin's savvy run for P2 at Nazareth, Mercedes drivers have had little success. "Little" Mo Nunn's fledgling one-car team with Tony Kanaan in the cockpit has not been any more disappointing than the overall performance of PacWest's well-tested Gugelmin/Blundell tandem.
It does make you scratch your head and wonder, though, whether the last three CART Champions would have done quite as well under Nunn's tutelage with Mercedes-Benz engines instead of Hondas.
Should the Milwaukee Toyota victory turn out not to be the harbinger of "everyday" success, each of the original six-pack of winners could certainly return to the top step of the podium in the coming months. And there are another six drivers who, as I said earlier, are "lurking" just behind these stellar performers. Here's my six-pack of Champ Car pilots who figure to notch Y2K victories in the remaining 14 races:
1. Roberto Moreno - Pupo's consistency, courage, car handling and attitude will be rewarded. Although he is a threat on any type of circuit, look for Moreno to break through at a street race or a
road course. My guess is Toronto.
2. Kenny Brack - Never having attended an IRL race (that certainly doesn't make me a bad person), I had no idea what to expect from Brack. I had the preconceived notion that he would probably be an average driver in comparison to CART's crème de la crème. Wrong! Kenny is the real deal talent-wise and has a fantastic work ethic, to boot (why would I have doubted Bobby Rahal?). I can see a Kenny Brack rookie season breakthrough at Chicago.
3. Dario Franchitti - The luck will change…big-time. Dario may find the Winners' Circle as early as the next race in Detroit, but I pick him to win at Mid-Ohio.
4. Patrick Carpentier - His speed on the short ovals is amazing, especially in this deep field. Patrick has a lot to prove and he has convinced me recently that he intends to overhaul his image. St. Louis "owes" Carpentier his breakthrough victory.
5. Christian Fittipaldi - With Bryan Herta likely not to have a ride at Laguna Seca (somebody must be working on making that one happen) Christian will have things well in hand by then.
For #6 my heart says go with Helio Castroneves or Cristiano da Matta. These are two explosive talents - and personalities - that make the sport of Champ Car racing fun. But Helio has the wrong chassis and Cris has the wrong engine. So who's left? The forgotten man…
6. Jimmy Vasser - at Michigan.
Enjoy your six-pack (and very likely a seventh, too) at Belle Isle. But please folks - never drink and drive!
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