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Vasser wins race as teammate Zanardi wraps up PPG Cup championship

September 7, 1997

MONTEREY, Calif. (AP) _ Teammates Alex Zanardi and Jimmy Vasser picked up all the spoils in Sunday’s Texaco-Havoline 300K, with Vasser winning the race and Zanardi’s third-place finish clinching the PPG CART World Series championship.

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 for the Target-Chip Ganassi Racing team by finishing fourth.

Vasser was dominating Sunday as he came up with his first victory in 16 months, dating to the U.S. 500 in May of 1996.

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.

The aftermath of the 83-lap race on Laguna Seca Raceway’s 2.238-mile, nine-turn road course was somewhat bizarre as the victorious teammates attempted to drive a victory lap side-by-side and wound up banging together, with Vasser’s car spinning to a stop.

Zanardi continued around to the pit lane, while Vasser got out of his car and hitched a ride back on the sidepod of Max Papis’ race car. When Vasser got to the pits, he jumped into the team’s celebration, hugging Zanardi.

``If I have to give up the (PPG) Cup to anybody, this is the guy I want to give it to,″ Vasser said, smiling at his Italian teammate.

``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.

``But I’m going to go home happy tonight,″ added the 30-year-old Zanardi, who earned a $1 million championship bonus from series sponsor PPG.

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.″

Vasser, who led the last 58 laps, beat Englishman Mark Blundell to the finish line by 0.543 seconds _ about four car-lengths. Zanardi moved 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, went off-course 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.

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.

He held the lead on his second and last pit stop, with Blundell moving ahead of Zanardi with a quick stop. On lap 57, Zanardi attempted to pass Blundell in the hairpin and wound up driving off into the sand and lost two more positions, to Gugelmin and Pruett.

Zanardi then got conservative, letting Ribeiro pass him for fifth on lap 73.

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.

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