Back in the days before David Letterman "The Tonight Show" featured a raft of running gags. Johnny Carson, in his nightly monologues - when he wasn't on vacation - would always lead with something like: "Boy, the CART point standings are certainly close these days." Then his ever-ready sidekick and straight man Ed McMahon would shoot right back with: "How close ARE they oh Great One," to which Carson would reply with one of his wry punch lines.
How close ARE the point standings in the FedEx Championship Series right now? So close that you can barely slip a dime between any given two of the top-six point-scorers let alone a wad of cash that could contain hundreds of thousands of dollars more or less than the next guy's. Brutally close enough that Roberto Moreno, who finished respectably in P10 last Sunday in Vancouver, dropped from second to fifth in the standings. So close that a mere 20 Championship points separate leader du jour Michael Andretti from the sixth-place driver, Kenny Brack.
The current standings: Andretti - 126, Paul Tracy - 120, Adrian Fernandez - 117, Gil de Ferran - 116, Roberto Moreno - 115 and Kenny Brack way back there at 106 points.
As if this coming weekend's activities at the Grand Prix of Monterey won't have an interesting enough impact on the winding-down CART Championship, the "silliest Silly Season ever" has already got most fans scratching their heads over the 2001 whereabouts of many of their faves. It is difficult to believe, with all of the changes afoot, that there are still five races to be contested this season.
"I've had a monkey on my back but it just turned into a gorilla. I'm finished," quipped the game but crestfallen Englishman Mark Blundell on national TV after yet another hard luck incident put him out of yet another race last week at Vancouver. Billy's PacWest teammate Big Mo Gugelmin has been similarly simian-plagued. Both are behind the eightball as much because of their ungainly Mercedes power plants as the result of the racing fates' whims.
Quebecois Patrick Carpentier - and his loose cannon French-Canadian teammate Alexandre Tagliani for that matter - might both have been history by now had they been toiling for any other team but the Canadian Players-sponsored Forsythe Racing. Similarly, Derrick Walker's driver Shinji Nakano, Bettenhausen's Michel Jourdain Jr. and Arciero's Luiz Garcia Jr. might all be living on the bubble if not for their shared primary asset: the ability to bring sponsorship dollars to their respective teams.
Bryan Herta, Laguna Seca's reigning Champion (with back-to-back Monterey wins in 1998/1999 after being "Pass-ed" in the final navigation of the Corkscrew in 1997 by Alessandro Zanardi) says he'll be on tap to defend. As I write, Herta will either be running in a third unmarked or Indeck-sponsored Forsythe Players Reynard-Cosworth or in Nakano's Reynard-Honda.
Having Bryan back in the mix should help to keep the front-runners honest on the 2.238-mile natural road course at Laguna Seca. The Champ Cars are scheduled to make 83 passes (186 miles) through that 7-story elevation-changing downhill spiral known as the Corkscrew before the checkers are shown to Sunday's combatants.
Then there is the imminent Michael Andretti announcement. Is the deal for Michael to run a third Team Kool Green Reynard-Honda sponsored by Motorola done or will there be some other surprise in store?
Finally, with all of the excitement of a close Championship race and a Silly Season that is about to come to a full boil it would be all too easy to forget one extremely important person.
A year ago at Laguna Seca an up-and-coming phenom from Uruguay, Gonzalo Rodriguez, lost his life in a spectacular Corkscrew crash that remains under-explained to this day. "Speedy Gonzalo" Rodriguez was a patriotic role model to his fellow-Uruguayans and a beloved member of his family and of the Champ Car family. Gonzalo Rodriguez, a world-class driver, must be memorialized this Sunday.
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