Earnhardt tames Talladega again

Da Matta clinches CART series championship with victory at Miami

Posted: Monday, October 07, 2002

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- It pays to have a friend at Talladega Superspeedway.

Tony Stewart gave Dale Earnhardt Jr. assistance on the way to his third straight Talladega victory in Sunday's EA Sports 500. Being a good Samaritan also paid off for the runner-up as Stewart jumped from third into the Winston Cup points lead.

''My hat's off to Tony Stewart for being a good friend and helping me out, sticking behind me,'' Earnhardt said.

Stewart, who chose to protect his position and not to take a run at the leader in the waning laps, finished 0.118 seconds behind -- about a car-length.

''I never thought about trying to go by Junior,'' Stewart said. ''It's a trust thing that he and I have. I know that if I'm leading the race, he has always stuck with me, and he knows that any time I've been behind him like that late in a race that I've always stuck by him.

''It gives him a feeling of security and it gives me a feeling of security knowing he is going to take care of me on the front side. All I've got to worry about are the guys behind me.''

Asked if he was disappointed the lead pack didn't gang up on Earnhardt and help him push to the front on the last lap, Stewart said, ''To be honest, I never saw anything behind me that last lap. I guess I looked in the mirror for a moment in turn 2 and turn 4, just to make sure nobody was making a move on me.''

NASCAR's experiment, cutting the gas tanks from 22 gallons to 12.5 in an effort to force more pit stops and spread out the field to avoid a big accident, looked like a failure through most of the caution-free race. But it paid off at the end.

The usual packs of 30 or more cars racing two- and three-wide at speeds close to 200 mph formed up within a few laps after each of the early pit stop sequences. However, with fuel mileage a big variable and cars making their final pit stops at different times, the leaders were able to break away in the waning laps.

''We already had good fuel mileage, but I lifted (off the gas), especially the last half of the race,'' said Earnhardt, who ran the last 38 laps -- 101.08 miles -- on has last tank of gas. ''I ran out coming down pit road here (after the race), so it was close.''

At the end, there were only 10 cars in the lead group that crossed the finish line in single file.

''Tony had a good enough car to pass me, but the thing was the pack kind of thinned down to four or five cars (at the front),'' the winner explained. ''It's hard for just three or four cars to push one guy by the leader. You need a whole pack back there really pushing.''

Earnhardt -- whose late father won a record 10 races at Talladega -- joined Buddy Baker as the only driver to win three in a row on the fast 2.66-mile oval.

Grand Prix of the Americas

MIAMI -- Cristiano da Matta clinched the CART series championship Sunday, winning the Grand Prix of the Americas in the slowest race in the circuit's history.

Da Matta held off Christian Fittipaldi by 0.734 seconds, winning for the seventh time this season and the 11th time in his career.

In a race slowed by six yellow flags, Da Matta's average speed on the 1.387-mile, 16-turn temporary road course was 68.723 mph, slower than the 69.576 mph average by Al Unser Jr. in Denver in 1991.

Da Matta extended his lead to an insurmountable 69 points over Bruno Junqueira, who finished fifth. No driver can win more than 68 points in the three remaining races.

The 29-year-old da Matta became the quickest to earn the series championship since 1998, when Alex Zanardi wrapped up the crown with four races remaining.

''It's unbelievable. I didn't expect to get it right here in Miami,'' said da Matta, who collected a $1 million title bonus. ''It just feels great. I can't explain. It feels awesome.''

Junqueira needed to finish at least fourth to maintain any chance of winning the championship.

''Cristiano won the championship. He deserves it,'' Junqueira said. ''Even if I finished fourth, the championship was almost gone. Cristiano did a very good job.''

Da Matta started sixth, but took the lead after polesitter and early leader Tony Kanaan was penalized for blocking Scott Dixon on the 20th lap.

Dixon was attempting to slide past Kanaan on the inside, but Kanaan dropped low and pushed Dixon's car into the concrete wall. Dixon spun wildly and was out of the race. Kanaan was able to retain the lead briefly, before race officials issued the blocking penalty and sent him to the back of the pack.

''We had a good run on him and got practically beside him,'' Dixon said. ''He just turned right and the corner was another 50 yards away. It's just so obvious and pretty blatant.''

It is the fourth time that a driver from the Newman/Haas racing team has won the CART title. Da Matta joins Mario Andretti (1984), Michael Andretti (1991) and Nigel Mansell (1993) on the list.

''This team deserves this title more than anybody,'' da Matta said. ''They did a great job for me all year.''

The win by da Matta means a Brazilian-born driver has won the CART series for the third consecutive year and for the fourth time overall. Gil de Ferran won the CART title in 2000 and 2001, and Emerson Fittipaldi was the series champion in 1989.

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