Tagliani Fastest in Toyota Practice
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FONTANA, Calif. (AP) _ Alex Tagliani was the fastest of a very quick field Friday, the opening day of practice for the 500 presented by Toyota and California Speedway.
The Canadian driver, behind the wheel of a Ford-powered Reynard, turned a lap of 233.726 mph on the 2-mile oval as teams prepared for Sunday’s 500-mile event.
``There was a tow involved in my lap for sure,″ Tagliani said. ``We were working with the downforce throughout the session and we were pretty trimmed down.
He was fast in practice in Rockingham, England, in September.
``We qualified ninth there,″ he recalled. ``I think the times are representative of how we’ll do in the race.″
Jimmy Vasser, who won the 500-mile race here in 1998, was second at 232.988, followed by Tony Kanaan at 232.891, Dario Franchitti at 232.743 and Patrick Carpentier at 232.063.
The top five will be favorites for the pole in Saturday’s qualifying.
``I’m not too worried about qualifying,″ Kanaan said. ``We’re just working on having a good race car. It’s obviously a long race.″
Cristiano da Matta, who wrapped up the 2002 CART championship last month and is the defending winner here, was ninth at 231.496. Da Matta will break the series record of eight victories in a season if he wins the last two events this year. He also leads the series with seven poles in 2002.
FAST HEALER: Despite fracturing two neck vertebrae in a crash last Sunday in Australia, Adrian Fernandez is hoping to be back in his race car in time for the season-ending event Nov. 17 in Mexico City.
Fernandez, the only owner-driver in the CART series, said he already is doing physical therapy and will undergo another CT Scan to determine if the injury is healing enough to allow him to race in his native country.
``I’m sure the latest we can do it, maybe the Monday of the week of the race,″ said Fernandez, who was wearing a large white neck brace at the track on Friday. ``That’s two weeks. My body heals very quickly, I think it’s due to the physical shape that all the drivers are in; not just myself but every driver in CART. I have a lot of optimism that I’m going to be OK.″
This is the second time this season that the 37-year-old driver has missed a race because of injury. He was hit from behind in Vancouver on July 28 and had two hairline fractures in his left pelvis. That forced him to miss the race at Mid-Ohio.
Max Papis, who replaced Fernandez in that event, also is driving his car this weekend.
Fernandez is hoping he will only miss one race this time, as well.
``I’m very hopeful,″ he said. ``For me, it’s a dream come true to go to Mexico City and race in front of all our fans after so many years of trying to bring a race there. We’ve been working to have a race in Mexico City for so many years, and for me not being there, it would be a very tough situation.″
FAST STOP: Team Rahal won the Craftsman Pit Crew Challenge Shootout at California Speedway on Friday.
Jimmy Vasser was at the wheel of the Ford-powered Lola as his crew changed four tires and got him out of his pit stall and past the timing light in 35.042 seconds. That was easily the fastest stop of the day. It came in the first of two rounds and Vasser didn’t have to make the second run to win.
The CART teams earn points throughout the season with the lowest total time in the pits at each race. The top five in the points then meet in the finals.
``We were the favorites as bad as we kicked everybody’s rear end all season,″ Vasser said. ``It would have been even a bigger margin if we had had better luck and finished more races this season.″
The winning team, which had the total fastest time in eight of the first 17 races in 2002, shares $50,000.
The Newman/Haas Racing team of Cristiano da Matta was second at 35.282, followed by teammate Christian Fittipaldi at 35.920. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Bruno Junqueira was fourth at 36.459, with Alex Tagliani’s Team Players’ crew last at 40.325.
Kenny Brack was the Team Rahal driver last year and the only returning crewman on the car was Greg Cates, who changed the outside rear tire. Other members of the winning crew were Bharat Naran on the outside front tire, Matt Motyka on the inside front, Jeremy Johnson on the inside rear and Doug Hoerig on the air jack.
SPARK PLUGS: The 2.029-mile California oval was the site of Gil de Ferran’s record closed course run of 242.428 mph in qualifying for the 2000 race. ... California Speedway also holds the distinction of having the most lead changes in a CART race, with 73 among 19 drivers last fall. ... Michael Andretti, who will move to the rival Indy Racing League in 2003, will start the 308th race of his 20-year CART career on Sunday.