CHAMPCAR/CART: Mid-Ohio preview

Unser Jr. Looking To Deliver At Miller 200 For Third Time In A Row UNSER JR. LOOKING TO DELIVER AT MILLER 200 FOR THIRD TIME IN A ROW DETROIT (Aug. 1, 1996) -- Al Unser Jr. has deftly chipped away at the PPG Cup points lead of Jimmy Vasser ...

CHAMPCAR/CART: Mid-Ohio preview

Unser Jr. Looking To Deliver At Miller 200 For Third Time In A Row


DETROIT (Aug. 1, 1996) -- Al Unser Jr. has deftly chipped away at the PPG Cup points lead of Jimmy Vasser without the benefit of a victory, but he arrives at a venue for the Miller 200 that could cater to his specific need and ongoing chase.

Unser Jr. (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) returns Aug. 11 to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for Round 13 of the PPG Indy Car World Series season carrying the distinction of being the two-time defending champion of the Miller 200 (ABC-TV, 3 p.m. ET). A third consecutive triumph would assure Unser Jr. of his first PPG Cup points lead this season. Unser Jr. trails Vasser by a point, 112-111, and his success on the 2.25-mile permanent road course carries well beyond the victories in the past two seasons. He has finished outside the top five just twice since 1985 and worse than eighth once in that span. He comes to Mid-Ohio battling a 13-race winless drought that dates back to last season, but has remained in the points race through his consistent runs up front. He has finished fourth or better seven times, including season-best, runnerup showings at Rio and Milwaukee, and has been out of the points just twice in 12 starts.

Vasser's lead may be shrinking, but he has not relinquished the top spot since winning from the pole at Australia in March. Vasser (Target Reynard Honda), who held a season-high 36-point lead over Unser Jr. after capturing the U.S. 500 from the pole on May 26, has maintained the advantage in recent weeks by capturing two poles and finishing among the top 10 in the last three races. He won his series-high fourth pole in record-breaking fashion at the Marlboro 500 en route to a ninth-place finish. He arrives at a course where he finished a personal best of ninth last season in four career starts.

A big weekend from Gil de Ferran (Pennzoil Special Reynard Honda) also gives him the opportunity to vault into first in the PPG Cup points battle. De Ferran is third with 92 points and arrives as the most successful road course driver this season. In six road course starts, he has 65 points on the strength of three podium finishes, including his lone victory and pole of the season. De Ferran's triumph came at Cleveland, and earlier in the season he claimed the pole in a record-breaking speed at Long Beach. He has completed all but six of the 523 road course laps and is second in laps led with 134. De Ferran's other road course podium visits came at Detroit (3rd) and Portland (2nd).

A key for them to keep in mind is that the driver leading the points departing Mid-Ohio has gone on to win the PPG Cup all but once since 1987. Unser Jr. led Bobby Rahal by a point after the Miller 200 in 1992, but Rahal went on to the title.

De Ferran is one of three drivers with two or less seasons of IndyCar experience who man the top three points positions in road course events this season. He is joined by rookie Alex Zanardi (Target Reynard Honda) and Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart/Budweiser Lola Ford), another second-year Brazilian. The trio has led 390 of the 523 road course laps -- nearly 75 percent -- in the six races.

Zanardi is second in road course points with 57 and the majority of those come courtesy of a three-race, road-course streak of podium finishes he brings into the Miller 200. The run began with a victory from the pole in Portland and was followed with runnerup showings at Cleveland and Toronto. Zanardi, tied for the Rookie of the Year points lead with Greg Moore (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes), heads the series in laps led on road courses with 191 as well as overall (463).

Fittipaldi still is searching for his first career victory and has found his best success on the road circuits. Buoyed by his only two podium finishes this season, he has 53 points in six starts. ttipaldi, fourth in the PPG Cup points (87), matched his career-best finish with a runnerup showing at Detroit and followed that performance with a third-place finish at Portland.

Joining Vasser (twice), de Ferran and Zanardi as road course winners this season are Michael Andretti (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Lola Ford) and Adrian Fernandez (Tecate Beer/Quaker State Lola Honda). Andretti claimed his road victory at Detroit, one of his three triumphs this season, and Fernandez earned his first career IndyCar victory at Toronto. Both also have had success at the Miller 200. Andretti is a two-time Miller 200 champion (1990, '91) and three-time polesitter ('90-92). Fernandez has finished in the top six in two career starts at Mid-Ohio, including fourth last season. Rahal (Miller Reynard Mercedes) joins Andretti as the only drivers in the event's 14-year history with multiple victories and poles in the Miller 200. Rahal won the race in 1985 and '86 and captured pole positions in '83 and '85.

Several drivers, led by Andre Ribeiro (LCI International Lola Honda) and Bryan Herta (Shell Reynard Mercedes), are coming off strong performances at the Marlboro 500 on July 28. Ribeiro led a race-high 114 laps en route to his second victory of the season. He joined Vasser and Andretti as this season's only multiple race winners. Herta equaled his career-best effort that came at Cleveland in 1995 with a runnerup finish at Michigan. It was his third consecutive top-six finish. Stefan Johansson (Alumax Aluminum Reynard Mercedes) and Eliseo Salazar (Cristal/Copec/Mobil 1 Lola Ford) registered season-best finishes, taking fifth and 11th, respectively. Mauricio Gugelmin (Hollywood/PacWest Reynard Ford) finished third for his second podium appearance of the season, and PacWest rookie teammate Mark Blundell's sixth-place showing (VISA/PacWest Reynard Ford) was one position shy of his season-best effort.

Robby Gordon (Valvoline/Cummins/Craftsman Reynard Ford), Raul Boesel (Brahma Sports Team Reynard Ford) and Juan Manuel Fangio II (All American Racers Eagle Toyota) have been solid in their previous Mid-Ohio visits. Gordon has finished eighth or better in his three career appearances, including runnerup in 1993. Boesel has been among the top eight in three of his last four Mid-Ohio starts, including fourth in '93. Fangio II made his IndyCar career debut at Mid-Ohio last year as a replacement for the injured Danny Sullivan and finished seventh. The performance remains his career best.

Scott Pruett (Firestone Patrick Racing Lola Ford) and Parker Johnstone (Motorola Reynard Honda) recorded career moments earlier this season in road course events. Pruett claimed the first IndyCar pole of his career at Detroit and Johnstone posted a career-best runnerup finish at Long Beach. Rookies Moore and PJ Jones (All American Racers Eagle Toyota) also have been impressive on road circuits. Moore has recorded three of his top four finishes at road course events this season, taking third at Australia and Cleveland and adding a fourth at Toronto. Jones had his best effort come on a road circuit, taking ninth at Detroit in his PPG Indy Car World Series career debut. Veteran Hiro Matsushita (Panasonic/Duskin Lola Ford) also had his best season showing come on the road, finishing 10th at Australia.

Davy Jones (Delco Electronics Lola Mercedes), coming off a 12th-place finish in his PPG Indy Car World Series season debut at Michigan, will be making his first start at Mid-Ohio since 1987. Roberto Moreno (Data Control Lola Ford) will be making his first visit to Mid-Ohio since 1986.

Max Papis, a 26-year-old Italian, will make his IndyCar career debut this weekend for Arciero-Wells Racing. He replaces Jeff Krosnoff, who died in a July 14 accident at Toronto, in the MCI Toyota Reynard. Papis, currently starring in the IMSA World SportsCar series, will compete in three of the final four PPG Indy Car World Series events for Arciero-Wells.

Paul Tracy (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) is recovering from a chip fracture to the spinous process cervical vertebra sustained July 27 during a Marlboro 500 practice accident, and is hopeful for being healthy for the Miller 200. If Tracy is unable to go, Jan Magnussen, a 23-year-old Danish test driver for Marlboro McLaren Mercedes, will step in. Hogan Penske Racing has not announced a replacement at Mid-Ohio for Emerson Fittipaldi (Marlboro Hogan Penske Mercedes), who is out for the season after sustaining multiple injuries from a Marlboro 500 accident, but Magnussen is slated to run the final three events of the season for the team.

ESPN2 will broadcast a tape-delayed qualifying show Saturday, Aug. 10 (6 p.m. ET), and a live, pre-race program Sunday, Aug. 11 (2:30 p.m. ET). The Miller 200 will be televised live by ABC-TV beginning at 3 p.m. ET. The PPG Indy Car World Series travels next to Elkhart Lake, Wis. for the Texaco/Havoline 200 on Aug. 18 at Road America.

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