Da Matta wins one for Brazil on an oval

Monday, July 1st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CICERO, Ill. (AP) _ Cristiano da Matta made it one more win for Brazil.

He withstood a challenge from Brazilian compatriot Bruno Junqueira in 90-degree heat Sunday and won the Chicago Grand Prix for the second time in three years.

This was Da Matta's third straight victory, his fourth of the year and sixth in nine races.

Da Matta arrived at the track at 6 a.m. to watch Brazil's 2-0 victory over Germany for the World Cup title. He then celebrated with Brazilian drivers and joined them in getting haircuts in tribute to soccer star Ronaldo. The entire back of their heads were shaved to stubble.

``After the game, I met with my engineers and you just start to get into your work and forget about it,'' da Matta said. ``The happiness is in the back of your mind all the time. But, for me, driving is a lot more important than soccer.''

Da Matta didn't have reason to be happy when he finished 15 laps behind in CART's first oval race of the season in Motegi, Japan.

He then ran in the top six in on the Milwaukee Mile oval before a fuel pump problem spoiled his day.

``Now, we qualify third here and win the race,'' da Matta said. ``There's a big difference inside the car.''

Most of the top CART teams spend much of May preparing for and racing in the rival Indy Racing League's Indianapolis 500. Da Matta's Newman-Haas Racing team skipped the event.

``I knew we had to get our act together,'' he said.

On Sunday, he led a race-high 82 laps, including the final 16 of 250. It was his second victory in three years at the track where da Matta earned the first of his eight career wins in 2000.

Junqueira, who like da Matta grew up in Belo Horizonte, finished second by 0.639-seconds _ about five car-lengths. Dario Franchitti, who started from pole and led the first 68 laps, was close behind in third on the 1.039-mile oval.

This was the second straight race in which those three have finished in that order, marking the first time there have been duplicate 1-2-3 finishes since Al Unser Jr., Paul Tracy and Emerson Fittipaldi did it at Mid-Ohio and Loudon, N.H., in 1994.

Temperatures in the 90s and a blanket of humidity over the track, held the crowd to 25,268 at Chicago Motor Speedway and made for a hard day of driving.

``I didn't get tired, but I did dehydrate,'' said Junqueira, gasping when he climbed from his car. ``It's really tough to pass here. We did very good pit stops, but I just couldn't get by him.''

Da Matta gained only five points on Junqueira, who came in tied in the standings with Michel Jourdain for second place, 20 points behind the leader. Franchitti moved to third, 31 back, followed by Jourdain, who slipped to 38 behind after finishing 10th.

Franchitti lost the lead during the first pit stop when his Team Green crew had a problem changing a tire. He had another slow stop later in the race.

``We have the car to win and we're losing races,'' the Scotsman said. ``Every time we come in the pits, we lose places.''

CART set a rule this year to eliminate fuel conservation strategies, giving cars enough fuel to race flat out. But the rule also forces cars to pit and change four tires within a specific period _ every 68 laps Sunday _ at each track.

That puts more pressure on crews to make the tire change and get the car out.

Da Matta teammate Christian Fittipaldi and Scott Dixon each had a tire come off after leaving their pit stall. Tracy and Kenny Brack both lost tires in similar cases the past two races.

Brack, the defending winner, didn't get past the first turn of the race, colliding with Jimmy Vasser. Brack tried to pass Vasser on the high side of the track and made it five wide before it appeared he came down and clipped Vasser's car, sending both into the wall.