FONTANA, Calif. (AP) â€” Gil de Ferran's driving championship almost went up in smoke.
On a day when survival was all important, de Ferran escaped a close call on the 88th lap to finish third Monday in the Marlboro 500 and win his first CART driving title.
Christian Fittipaldi also narrowly averted trouble and went on to win the rain-delayed race.
Driving blindly at some 200 mph as they careened through a smoke screen and over an oil slick caused by Tony Kanaan's blown engine, de Ferran and Fittipaldi came through unscathed and each went on to earn $1 million paydays.
Their cars were among only six still running at the finish, as blown engines and other mechanical problems decimated the field of 23 that took the green flag.
``I had several close calls, especially with Michael Andretti and Oriol Servia,'' said de Ferran, who was running near those two when they bumped on the 88th lap.
As smoke billowed from Kanaan's Mercedes Reynard nearing the first turn, Kanaan steered the car to the inside and out of harm's way. But Andretti and Servia, unable to see through the smoke, made contact as they tried to swerve high on the track.
De Ferran, just behind in his Honda Reynard, barely missed Andretti's car. Servia crashed into the wall, his car skidding down it for some 100 yards before he slid to a stop. Both Servia and Andretti were through for the day.
``All I saw was smoke and cars going everywhere,'' de Ferran said. ``Then there was so much smoke I couldn't see where any of the cars were. At one point, Michael's car and mine were nose-to-nose and I was looking right into his face.
``But luck was on our side.''
Fittipaldi felt fortunate, too.
``I almost spun trying to avoid Michael,'' he said after the race, which was halted because of rain following 33 laps on Sunday, finally was concluded.
De Ferran, who began the season finale with a six-point lead on Adrian Fernandez in what was CART's tightest points race ever, won the driving crown by eight points when Fernandez finished fifth in the Marlboro 500.
Feeling relief and joy, de Ferran sat in his car sobbing for several minutes after crossing the finish line.
``It was very emotional for me, the whole day,'' said de Ferran, who won twice this year. ``I was trying to keep my emotions in control, trying to keep calm. I've dreamed all my life of winning a title like this.''
Cars driven by Helio Castroneves and Alex Tagliani also slammed into the wall at different times. But neither they nor Servia had serious injuries.
Noting all the mechanical failures that plagued other drivers, de Ferran said, ``It was a tough day for reliability for a lot of people. Even on Friday, we knew challenge No. 1 would be to make it to the finish.''
Fittipaldi, nephew of former racing great Emerson Fittipaldi, earned $1 million in winning for just the second time since beginning his CART career in 1995.
He was assured the victory when Tagliani went into the wall two laps from the finish, prompting a yellow flag. Fittipaldi averaged 139.563 mph in his Ford Lola as the race was slowed by caution flags 11 times for 85 laps in the two days.
``I was absolutely wide open for the last five laps of the race,'' Fittipaldi said. ``We knew it was our last chance to win a race this season and we were giving it everything we had.''
Roberto Moreno was second, giving Brazilians a 1-2-3 finish.
Casey Mears, son of off-road racer Roger Mears and nephew of four-time Indy 500 champion Rick Mears, finished fourth in his CART debut.
De Ferran, who started from the pole Sunday after posting a closed-course record lap of 241.428 mph, finished with 168 points to edge Fernandez and win the $1 million Vanderbilt Cup as season champion.
``Unfortunately, we didn't have the car today to give Gil a run for his money,'' Fernandez said. ``The car was pushing a lot. It was something weird. A couple of times I got very close to the wall. At the end it was a matter of being patient and finishing the race in the best position we could.''
Nine drivers were in contention for the title with three races remaining.
Moreno moved up to third in the final points standings with 147, followed by Kenny Brack with 135 and Paul Tracy with 134.
Brack, the champ car tour's rookie of the year, lost his slim chance at the points title when a turbocharger problem on his Ford Reynard ended his day on the 168th lap. Tracy lost his bid for the points championship a day earlier when his engine blew on lap 23 before the race was stopped.
Juan Montoya of Colombia, driving his final CART race before switching to Formula One, was trying for his fourth win of the season. He took the lead on the 219th lap when the engine blew on his Toyota Lola.
Castroneves, who also had been running at or near the front much of the day, was another victim of a blown engine, and the spilling oil caused his car to go skidding violently into the wall in front of the main grandstand.
Fittipaldi's victory gave the CART series a record 11 winners in this year's 20 races.
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