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SLOW AND STEADY COULD WIN RACE.

Byline: Keith Lair Staff Writer

FONTANA - Racing logic goes out the window at California Speedway.

When CART lines up for its longest race of the season today on the 2-mile oval, the 18 drivers will defy the traditional axiom of going to the front as quickly as possible.

``No one wants to lead,'' said pole-sitter Tony Kanaan, who was the last driver Saturday in the two-lap qualifying session and ran a speed of 232.011 mph. ``It's here I might be leading in turn 1, but I could fall back by turn 2 and then be back in the lead by turn 3. Who knows? It's always that kind of day here.''

In last year's race, there were a series-record 73 lead changes made by 19 drivers. The changes came about because teams were trying to conserve fuel and tried to make as few pit stops as possible.

``You would get in the lead and (your crew) was yelling at you to get out,'' Kanaan recalled.

To help change that situation, CART mandated that on tracks such as California Speedway, pit stops must be taken every 33 laps.

The top three drivers said there will be conservative driving in today's race, which starts at 12:30 p.m.

``You're still going to want to conserve your engine,'' said Cristiano da Matta, the series champion and third-fastest qualifier. ``You do not want to be in front, you want to be in the lead pack. If you're in the lead, you know you're eventually going to be caught.''

Added Kanaan: ``If you conserve on fuel, you'll have a shorter pit stop.''

But in the same breath, Kanaan said pit-stop strategy almost doesn't play a part of it. It's a matter of keeping your engine intact and staying on the lead lap.

``You know you can come out of the pits two seconds late and still catch up,'' he said.

That means the final 33 laps - specifically the final one - of the 250-lap race will more than likely lead to another shootout. Last year, da Matta won the race by 0.634 seconds.

``A third-place start is not bad for a 500-mile race,'' said da Matta, who has won eight races this year. ``If you can't get the pole, it doesn't matter where you start. It just helps getting clean air.''

Bruno Junqueira, who qualified second, said the strategy ``is to go for it the last 50 laps.''

That definitely means side-by-side racing, something that can be uncommon for this series because of its numerous road and street courses.

``You really have to pay attention,'' Kanaan said. ``You run so close that you cannot even joke about thinking (of) making moves, there are so many cars. Especially since the smallest thing can happen that can affect our car.''

He said road courses are more physically demanding and ovals require more of a mental approach.

``Mentally, it's a lot tougher,'' he said. ``Physically, you're OK. It's not a matter of paying attention part time. It has to be constant.''

CART TOYOTA 500

Time/TV: 12:30 p.m., SpeedChannel.

Location: California Speedway, Fontana

Pole-sitter: Tony Kanaan

CAPTION(S):

photo, box

Photo:

Tony Kanaan ran a speed of 232.011 mph Saturday in securing the top spot for today's CART Toyota 500 at California Speedway.

Thomas R. Cordova/Staff Photographer

Box:

CART TOYOTA 500 (see text)
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Nov 3, 2002
Words:561
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