De Ferran Wins Marlboro 500 Pole
FONTANA, Calif. (AP) _ Gil de Ferran turned in the fastest official closed-course lap in the history of auto racing Saturday to win the pole for the Marlboro 500.
More importantly, the 241.428 mph lap on California Speedway’s 2-mile oval gave the Team Penske driver one more championship point and a little bit more of an edge in the closest title battle in CART’s history.
``The most important thing in my mind right now is that extra point,″ said de Ferran, one of four drivers with a shot at the $1 million Vanderbilt Cup championship heading into Sunday’s season-ending race.
``I don’t know if we’re going to need it or not,″ the 33-year-old Brazilian said. ``But it’s nice to have that extra cushion going into tomorrow.″
With 21 more points available on Sunday _ 20 for winning the race and one for leading the most laps _ de Ferran boosted his lead over Adrian Fernandez to six points and over the third-place duo of Paul Tracy and Kenny Brack to 19. All four contenders are aiming for their first title.
Roberto Moreno, who came into the weekend with only a slim mathematical chance at winning the championship, was eliminated when he failed to capture the pole.
Former champion Michael Andretti, who was a distant second in qualifying at 239.097, is only an observer of the championship battle, but finds it fascinating.
``Paul or Kenny could win this thing tomorrow,″ Andretti said. ``I think it’s good that they end it with a 500-mile race. If it was a road course, you could pretty much figure out what Gil had to do to win it. But here, anything can happen.″
De Ferran agreed.
``Our mindset going into any 500-mile race is to try to stay in the lead lap, hone the car in during the race and try to get to the closing stages,″ he said. ``That still has to pretty much be our top priority.
``I don’t think during the race we’re going to be too concerned about the position of Adrian, Kenny or Paul, because things can chance so fast here from lap to lap. At the end, we’ll have to decide if we go racing or sit around and do only what we have to do to win the championship.″
De Ferran, who has won five poles this year and 11 in his career, certainly did what he had to do Saturday, taking his Honda-powered Reynard onto the banked oval last among the 26 qualifiers and using only one of his two allowable laps to break the record of 240.942 set here in 1997 by Mauricio Gugelmin.
``That lap was not really that difficult, to be quite honest,″ de Ferran said. ``I wasn’t sliding the car at all and I had only a little bit of oversteer. When I felt the car under me so solid, there was no way I was going to lift (off the accelerator).
``After that first lap, I said, ‘That’s it! Over! Done!’ ″
None of the other contenders came close to de Ferran’s performance.
Fernandez wound up 14th at 233.659, with Brack eighth at 236.297, Tracy ninth at 236.213 and Moreno 19th at 231.672.
``We’ve just got to stay out of trouble at the beginning of the race and just stay clean,″ Fernandez said. ``Hopefully, we’ll have dialed in our car enough to have a shot at the end.″
Brack, a CART rookie but a former winner of the rival Indy Racing League’s Indianapolis 500, said, ``Race strategy changes as the day goes on, so we’ll have to play it by ear. If we have the speed in the car, we should have as good a chance as anyone else.″
Juan Montoya, the defending series champion who will race in Formula One next year, failed to approach the unofficial lap of 242.253 he turned Friday in practice.
The 25-year-old Colombian, who barely held off Andretti for a victory in July in the Michigan 500, qualified fifth at 237.688.
``I’m a bit disappointed since we were so fast yesterday,″ Montoya said. ``But my strategy for tomorrow won’t change at all _ I’m going to go out and try to win.″
Montoya, who also won the Indy 500 in May, is trying to become the second driver _ after Al Unser in 1978 _ to win three 500-mile, open-wheel races in a single season.