Zanardi wins PPG Cup title as teammate wins Laguna Seca race
MONTEREY, Calif. (AP) _ This time, everybody was smiling after the crash.
Alex Zanardi, caught in a swirl of controversy only a week before, was on top of the world Sunday after locking up the PPG CART World Series championship with a third-place finish in the Texaco-Havoline 300K.
Not only did the intense Italian driver win the $1 million bonus from PPG for winning his first title as a professional racer, but his Target-Chip Ganassi Racing teammate and close friend Jimmy Vasser finally won a race after a 16-month drought.
Zanardi was so happy for Vasser that he tried to give him a hand as the two drove side-by-side in a slow victory lap around the 2.238-mile, nine-turn Laguna Seca Raceway road course.
``Alex took his hands off the wheel to clap or something,″ Vasser said, laughing. ``We just touched and he spun me out. Chip didn’t seem too upset.″
Zanardi, smiling impishly, said, ``I was so happy, I was trying to drive with my knees and clap for Jimmy. I always do that on the motorway in Italy, drive with my knees while I try to find a station on the radio. This time, it just didn’t work.″
Zanardi drove his Honda-powered Reynard on to the pits, while the seemingly unfazed Vasser got out of his car, hitched a ride on Max Papis’ sidepod and joined the team celebration, hugging his teammate.
``If I have to give up the (PPG) Cup to anybody, this is the guy I want to give it to,″ Vasser said.
``I wasn’t planning to make the doughnuts,″ said Zanardi, whose victory ritual earlier this season included doing doughnuts _ making circles on the track _ with his car. ``We were just going to drive around together.″
Zanardi, whose last seven starts have included four wins, a second, a third and a fourth, added, ``My life is not going to change, but I’m obviously a much happier man. Now I’m going to enjoy it. It feels great to win this championship and, tomorrow, I’m going to start thinking about all the pain I went through to get here. If you haven’t experienced feeling bad, you don’t know how good it feels.″
It was almost a reversal of last year’s race when Zanardi won, capturing rookie of the year honors, and Vasser wrapped up the title by finishing fourth.
Vasser was dominating Sunday as he came up with his first victory since the U.S. 500 in May of 1996 at Michigan Speedway. He led the final 58 laps and beat Englishman Mark Blundell to the finish line by 0.543 seconds _ about four car-lengths.″
Zanardi, who came into the race knowing he needed only to finish eighth or better to shut out runner-up Gil de Ferran, had some rough moments, but was never below sixth and never fell behind de Ferran, who wound up fifth.
De Ferran, who clinched second place in the championship, said, ``We knew it was going to be a longshot (to catch Zanardi). We were counting on the unexpected and the unexpected didn’t happen.″
Zanardi finished strong, moving from fifth to third over the last five laps.
On lap 79, Zanardi gained two spots when Scott Pruett and Andre Ribeiro banged, slowing Ribeiro and sending Pruett into a sand trap. He then moved up to third when Mauricio Gugelmin, Blundell’s teammate, had a brake failure and hit a tire barrier on the final lap.
The early part of the race saw the most action, with pole-winner Bryan Herta and Zanardi battling at the front.
Those two had been the focus of considerable attention during the days leading up to the race because of two previous incidents. Zanardi made a spectacular pass on the last lap of the 1996 Laguna Seca race to beat Herta. Then, last week at Vancouver, Zanardi bumped Herta out of the lead and into a tire wall while charging back from a lost lap.
Zanardi was fined $25,000 and put on probation for rough driving in the latter incident and CART officials, in reaction to last year’s pass in Laguna’s famed blind, downhill Corkscrew turn, this year made it illegal to put all four tires off the race track while making a pass.
Herta held the lead at the start of Sunday’s race, but Zanardi kept applying pressure. The leaders remained within less than one second of each other through most of the early laps.
Finally, on lap 17, Zanardi slipped past Herta on the inside as the two sped toward the hairpin turn just past the finish line. The Italian actually took the lead momentarily, before Herta slid to the slow side of the track and regained the top spot in turn two.
That battle allowed Pruett and Vasser to close up on the leaders.
On lap 22, Zanardi got inside of Herta again. But, this time, the two bumped front tires and Zanardi had to drive over a curb and along the edge of a sand trap before getting back on the track in third place.
``The tires went off so bad after 15 laps that I was just driving my butt off to stay ahead of Alex,″ Herta said. ``We were driving straight up and I didn’t mean to put him off. My car had no grip and I slid into him.″
Pruett took the opportunity to zoom into the lead as Herta and Zanardi dueled. Vasser than went by Herta, forcing him into the sand. Herta was able to continue, but fell all the way to eighth and was never back in contention.
The leaders first scheduled pit stops came soon after and Vasser had the best stop, coming out in the lead on lap 26, just ahead of Pruett, with Zanardi third, followed by Gugelmin and Blundell.
Vasser never lost the lead the rest of the way.
The race was run without a caution flag _ the first time since the Cleveland race in July 1994. Vasser’s average speed of 109.647 mph was considerably faster than the previous Laguna Seca record of 102.687 set last year by Zanardi.