Fontana: Vasser pips Andretti

Jimmy Vasser put two years of frustration behind him to emerge victorious in the fastest 500-mile race in history Sunday at California Speedway.

Fontana: Vasser pips Andretti

Vasser led an American one-two after a tense duel with Michael Andretti that featured a two-lap sprint to the finish following a late red flag. Vasser's Shell Lola-Ford looked to be the strongest car in the field all day long. The Team Rahal driver led 148 of 250 laps, but his win wasn't sealed until he drove around Andretti's Motorola Lola-Honda on the restart at the beginning of Lap 249.

The red flag was caused by Dario Franchitti, whose Honda engine let go in Turn 4 on Lap 244. CART quickly made the decision to throw the red flag to guarantee a green flag finish after coming under criticism in this event last year when Cristiano da Matta won under yellow.

The stoppage was a big break for Vasser, who had lost the lead to Andretti on the previous restart on Lap 242. That yellow was for leader Cristiano da Matta's blown Toyota motor, ending the Brazilian's hopes of scoring a CART record nine wins in a season.

Before that, the race had been remarkably clean and it appeared that the magic 200mph would be broken for the distance. As it was, the race average of 197.995mph smashed the existing record of 189.727mph set by Al Unser Jr. at Michigan International Speedway in 1990.

Vasser started sixth and took the lead for the first time on Lap 23. CART's pit window rule which called for a maximum of 33 laps between stops kept anyone from playing games with fuel strategy and the entire contest was basically run flat-out. Team Green running mates Andretti and Paul Tracy dominated the first 50 laps, but Tracy was soon eliminated by a sick engine. Meanwhile da Matta was moving up after a slow first two stints and at the 100-lap mark he ran second to Vasser, with Andretti third ahead of Michel Jourdain, Patrick Carpentier and pole man Tony Kanaan.

Da Matta and Vasser continued to exchange the lead through the middle portion of the race. After his car's handling deteriorated, Andretti rebounded and ran third as the race entered its final 100 miles.
At around the 200-lap mark, Max Papis (subbing for Adrian Fernandez) and Michel Jourdain both retired with engine woes after featuring in the top six. Jourdain was having one of the best races of his career, and the DNF was his first this year.

The last round of pit stops went down on Lap 231 and da Matta's crew helped their driver snatch the lead from Vasser. But six laps later, da Matta's engine let go in a plume of smoke.

"The car was pretty good all day," da Matta remarked. "The race was going to be between me and Jimmy. I was in good position ahead of him. For this to happen with only 14 laps to go out of 250 kind of breaks your heart."

After a brief yellow, Andretti drove past Vasser on the Lap 242 restart.

"The Handford wing has worked out pretty well, but on a restart, you're a sitting duck," Vasser said. "If the thing with Dario hadn't happened, it was going to be a lot harder for me to pass him under racing conditions."

Instead, Vasser got some good fortune when Franchitti's engine let go and the Scot pulled to a stop with the engine compartment alight in Turn 1. Out came the red flag, to the displeasure of Team Green.

"I'm glad they stopped it," commented Vasser's team boss Bobby Rahal."It was pretty Bush League that Dario was driving around with an engine that was obviously about to blow up."

Andretti took the red flag with equilibrium. "It's the new rule," he said. "If it's in the Rulebook that it's not supposed to end under yellow, then that's it. I didn't like it today, but I can accept it."

Following a brief delay to clean up Franchitti's oil, the cars set out for two yellow flag laps and then two laps under green. On the restart, Vasser easily drove around Andretti and maintained a comfortable margin to the finish, winning by 0.400 second. Patrick Carpentier was third and Kanaan fourth, the last driver on the lead lap.

"I didn't think Jimmy could pass me, then Dario had a problem and the red flag came out," Andretti said. "I was a sitting duck on the restart. He took just enough air off my car that I had to breathe it slightly and that was the difference.

"But what's fair is fair," he added. "The yellow hurt Jimmy's race and the red hurt my race. Jimmy's car looked really strong all day and he deserved it."

Vasser concurred, though he wasn't sure he would have been the favorite had everyone made the finish.
"I think Cristiano had a little in his pocket for the last two segments," he said. "He didn't want to lead, I guess, but I get the feeling that he was going to be tough at the end."

As for the red flag, Jimmy said: "I think it was the right call. We've seen it in NASCAR. It's about giving the fans a good finish. These 500-mile races are my favourite - they're a lot of fun."

This was Vasser's second win at California Speedway (he also won in 1998) to go with a pair of wins at the similar Michigan oval. It ended a drought of more than two years, since Houston in October, 2000 and it marked Vasser's 10th career Champ Car victory.

"It's a great win for me and for the team," he said. "The guys have worked hard all year and really busted their butts to put together cars that arrived here as a couple piles of junk. When you don't win for a long period of time, it gets to be really heavy."

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