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FOLLOWING DAD'S TRACKS MICHAEL ANDRETTI'S WIN THERAPEUTIC LIKE MARIO'S.

Byline: A.J. Perez Staff Writer

LONG BEACH - An Andretti again played the role of savior.

Only, this time it wasn't Mario.

Michael Andretti rescued the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, and the estimated crowd of more than 100,000, from an otherwise uneventful race Sunday when he edged fellow American Jimmy Vasser in a thrilling conclusion to the event's 28th running.

The victory was the sixth for the Andretti family in Long Beach. Racing legend Mario Andretti, who was on pit road Sunday, won four races in Long Beach, the first of which in 1977 was credited as the one that legitimized the event.

``It's such a big win,'' the younger Andretti said after winning his 42nd CART race. ``This place is very special to me because this is where I got my first win. ... It was nice to make the trip around in the truck. The fans here in Long Beach really get excited and get into it. It gives you a very good feeling.''

The one-two American finish was the first in the series since Michael Andretti beat Bobby Rahal in Vancouver in 1996. Italy's Max Papis finished third for his 10th career podium.

Forced into an aggressive pit strategy because of his 15th starting position on the grid, Andretti, 39, stayed on the track while leaders made their second of three mandatory pit stops on Lap 33.

``When you start in the back you have nothing to lose and you have to change your strategy,'' said Andretti, who was forced to use a backup car after his primary was damaged in qualifying. ``You basically have to do the opposite of what the leaders do and that's what we did. The yellows just went our way the rest of the time.''

Andretti had to pit on lap 47, surrendering the lead to Vasser, who led the next 14 laps before making a pit stop along with the other top 10 drivers on lap 61.

Mario Dominguez hit the wall on turn 1 - bringing out the fifth of six yellow flags in the race - giving Andretti his chance. Both Andretti and Papis, who were both on the same pit schedule, headed in for their final pit stop on lap 64 and managed to exit before the pace car and rest of the field caught up.

``I never thought about Michael and Max being in the equation for the lead,'' said Vasser, who started the race from the pole. ``I was thinking about Kenny (Brack) and a few other guys. Those were the ones I was concerned about. I slowed a little to save fuel, but I should have hustled the car up to the pace car. ... It just goes to show the fastest car doesn't always win.''

Papis was passed on lap 74 by Vasser and soon cut Andretti's lead to within a second.

``Jimmy started to catch up maybe a half-second a lap,'' Andretti said. ``But I didn't change the way I was driving too much. I just kept going as hard as I could and it just worked out.''

Vasser worked his way onto Andretti's tail making for an exciting final five laps. Andretti's lead was cut to 0.515 seconds after the 89th lap, but that still wasn't close enough for Vasser to make a serious run for the lead.

Andretti's margin of victory was second only to his victory in 1986, which was the closet race in Long Beach Grand Prix history.

Andretti's comeback at the Grand Prix was second only to Paul Tracy's victory in 2000, when he started in the 17th position. Andretti's 16-year break between victories in Long Beach set a record for the longest span between victories at one venue in CART history.

The action on the track might have not been compelling, but that wasn't the case for pit road. Cristiano da Matta, who passed Vasser on the race's first turn and led the first 31 laps, had his bid for a record-tying fourth consecutive series victory dashed when his crew released him from his pit stop right into the path of Adrian Fernandez.

Fernandez, who was making his way to his pit area, collided with da Matta, sending the race's leader into some stacked-up tires. By the time his crew got da Matta going again, he was back in 11th place.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos, box

(1) Michael Andretti plays to the crowd in the winner's circle after he won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday.

Steven Georges/Staff Photographer

(2) Michael Andretti, left, holds off Jimmy Vasser on the final lap Sunday at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Will Lester/Staff Photographer

Box:

RACE RESULTS
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Apr 15, 2002
Words:784
Previous Article:VASSER SETTLES FOR 2ND CANOGA PARK DRIVER FALTERS.
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