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GRAND PRIX OF LONG BEACH: TIME FOR A CHANGE TEAM PENSKE NEEDS A VICTORY.

Byline: Steve Irvine Staff Writer

There's a section in the 2000 Marlboro Team Penske media guides that details the year-by-year race victories since the team's first win in 1971.

It's a rich history - the richest in the CART FedEx Championship Series - that begins with two victories by Mark Donohue in 1971 and carries through 97 more race wins and seven Champ Car championship seasons by Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr. and Danny Sullivan. The trouble is, at least from a Penske point of view, there is nothing in the win column since Paul Tracy emerged with a victory on May 24, 1997, in St. Louis.

For the record, there have been 51 CART FedEx Championship Series events run since then, and the best a Roger Penske car could do was when a hard-charging Al Unser Jr. finished 1.086 seconds behind race winner Adrian Fernandez at Japan in the second race of the 1998 season.

In other words, that unprecedented 100th victory has been quite elusive.

``We've had our opportunities,'' said Rick Mears, a winner of 29 races and three series championships as a Marlboro Team Penske driver from 1978 to 1992 and team adviser since his retirement. ``Cards have never fell our way, but it's not like we weren't competitive.''

Actually, though, last year the team wasn't competitive.

Little Al, once the King of Long Beach and the 1994 CART champion, struggled with injury - a broken ankle on the second turn of the first lap in the opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway - and turmoil in his personal life to record only four top-10 finishes and a best of fifth at Cleveland. Tragedy struck the team at Laguna Seca when Gonzalo Rodriquez, who was in his second race with Team Penske, was killed in a Saturday morning practice accident.

So Roger Penske did something that wasn't easy for a person who long been considered among the best - if not the best - in his chosen field. He implemented change.

``I think what it boils down to is making changes to get rid of question marks,'' Mears said.

If that is indeed the case, then the question marks - engine, chassis, tires, drivers and some key team personnel - were considerable.

``When Roger decided to change,'' Mears said, ``he did it across the board. I think the (old) race car was a very good race car. We didn't really get a chance to show how good it was. He went with the chassis that won, the engine that won and the tires that won. What it all boils down to is we have all the pieces to the puzzle.''

What that means is the Marlboro Penske chassis powered by a Mercedes engine with Goodyear rubber is on the shelf. And a pair of incoming Brazilian drivers - veteran Gil de Ferran and youngster Helio Castro- Neves - will use the Honda-Reynard package with Firestone rubber that won the last four CART championships for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.

``Everybody knows the change is for the better,'' Castro-Neves said.

One of the people involved in the change, Penske Racing president Tim Cindric, said, however, that lofty expectations should be tempered for now.

``The initial goal was to come out and start the season as a competitive race team once again,'' said Cindric, 31, who was voted the series top team manager while with Team Rahal in 1998 and 1999. ``We need to go from consistently running in the top 10 to the top five and by the end of the year the top three. We have to approach this in realistic fashion. With a high-profile team like Marlboro Team Penske, sometimes expectations are a bit higher than the reality of the situation. Internally, we keep those things in check.''
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 13, 2000
Words:620
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