Hot da Matta keeps cool look in Toronto

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

July 07, 2002|By Sandra McKee

Brazil must be one party-happy place right now.

Its soccer team won the World Cup. Helio Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500. And today at 4 in Toronto, Cristiano da Matta has his second chance this season to tie the Championship Auto Racing Team's record for consecutive victories in that open-wheel series.

Da Matta, in fact, was so happy when Brazil won the World Cup he and the rest of the Brazilian CART drivers shaved their heads in the style of team star Ronaldo (a shaved head except for the forward third).

"The reality of the haircut hit me Monday in Chicago," said da Matta, whose latest victory came in the Grand Prix of Chicago last Sunday. "I was walking down the street with my mom and dad and a lot of people were looking at me. I thought I must be beautiful. Then, I remembered my hair!"

Driving for Newman/Haas Racing, da Matta, 29, has won six of the past nine races. If he wins today's race in Toronto, he would join Al Unser Jr., who won four straight in 1990, and Alex Zanardi, who won four straight in 1998, as the only drivers to achieve such consistency.

During a conference call, da Matta said his continued success is the result of a lot of hard work by his team in the off-season and the addition of Rocky Rockwell to the team's engine program.

"For sure, if I had to name one factor, it would be the engine program," da Matta said. "What Rocky did inside the team is interesting. Everyone in the engine program had been here a long time. They all approached situations in the same way. When Rocky came, he brought new ideas and new vitality. For the first time, the whole group opened up to see problems differently.

"And the speed they have responded with has amazed me."

Da Matta said he is confident coming in to Toronto. Not that he has ever really doubted his ability. "I always knew I could do the job," he said. "I've never had doubts about myself. I've won almost every championship in every series I ran before CART."

But he now has confidence in his team. He said it's like magic.

"Last year, we struggled so much at [oval] tracks like Chicago," he said. "I just didn't believe I had a chance at winning there. I've seen teams in situations like that, where they are so bad and so slow, that it usually takes two years to come out of it. To do it in six months is unbelievable. But our engineers found an answer. So, yes, they are like magic."

Confidence in himself and in his team. It makes for a potent combination.

"We are just like Brazil in the World Cup," he said. "We are calm and know we can do the job."

Fox makes tracks

In accordance with NASCAR's television contract that splits the season between Fox and NBC, NBC will take over from the Fox broadcasting team at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., next weekend.

But before turning out the lights at Fox, color man Darrell Waltrip had a few words - OK, more than a few - to say about who might win this season's Winston Cup championship.

"Here's the deal," said Waltrip, pointing out that every year at this time we marvel at how tight the points race is. There are always from four to as many as 10 teams with a chance.

"But over the month of July, that number will dwindle to four teams with a legitimate chance at winning the championship," he said. "At the end of August, there will be three teams and at the end of September there will be two and that's the way it has been ever since I've been in racing.

"Every year around now we say, `Gosh, look at all these teams that can win the championship.' But I guarantee you, with the way our points system works, there will be a couple teams that will eliminate themselves every couple of weeks.

"And at the end of the year, it will be two - Jeff Gordon and somebody. Jeff Gordon and Sterling [Marlin]. It could be Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson. But it's going to be two people who will fight it out."

Waltrip said he believes Gordon has positioned himself to go on a run that will separate him from the rest of the field.

"It's just what I think," said Waltrip. "Jeff's been close and his team seems to be getting better and loose and coming forward all the time. Sterling [the current points leader] almost looks like a team sitting on a lead and it's starting to bite them."

The only other driver Waltrip seriously considers is Tony Stewart.

"You can't count him out," he said. "Call him a wild card or whatever. I think he's a guy we have to keep an eye on. Look at last year, and it's starting this year. From about the middle of the season on, he gained the most points of anybody.

"So, if he can get over driving a Pontiac, which is not a very good race car, and put it behind him and his team works hard like it has, he could be the guy they chase to the finish."

Fox announced that viewership - not including the Daytona 500 and the Pepsi 400, which it alternates with NBC - was up an average of 70,000 homes a race during the first half of the season.

Nuts and bolts

Word is NASCAR will, at last, make a contribution to a "Sept. 11" fund. The sanctioning body has said it would make a donation when it determined where its money was most needed. We'll find out where that is when the series gets to its New York stop in Watkins Glen the weekend of Aug 9-11.

D.J. Myers won the 50-lap Johnny Roberts Memorial for late-models at Hagerstown Speedway last week. He took home $2,500 in his first win of the season. ... Jessup's Ronnie Dennis won the pure stock feature.

To celebrate its 55th anniversary, Hagerstown Speedway will hold a "Topless" night for super late-models. The cars will have their roofs off in a 55-lap, $4,000-to-win show July 31.

Former Washington Redskins coach and current Winston Cup car owner Joe Gibbs has a new book out, Racing to Win.

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