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Leader seeks a crown in new home

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002

MIAMI -- Cristiano da Matta is close to completing his climb through CART.

Da Matta can clinch his first series championship at the Grand Prix of the Americas this weekend in his adopted hometown of Miami. He needs to outscore Bruno Junqueira by 10 points and Dario Franchitti by three to clinch.

The Brazilian-born da Matta also has the opportunity to win the title in front of thousands of his countrymen.

"The sooner I can get it, the better," said da Matta, a six-time winner this season. "The most important thing is to win the championship, no matter when or how.

"But if I can win it here, that would be the best, because there's going to be a lot of support here."

Da Matta leads Junqueira by 58 points with four races left. He could become the fastest to win the CART championship since Alex Zanardi won the 1998 title with four races remaining.

"All of us are asking the same question, what he does differently," said Brazilian driver Oriol Servia. "It's a matter of doing every little thing right. That's what his team has done."

Da Matta's success has been years in the making.

As a rookie in 1999, da Matta was 18th in the standings, finishing in the top five twice.

In 2000, he climbed to 10th in points and earned his first win. He continued to improve in 2001, winning three races and placing fifth in points.

The first evidence of his dominance in 2002 came at the end of last season, when he won the last two races. That was the perfect springboard into this season.

"I think the experience from last year, of course, made us a better team, made us work together better," da Matta said. "I think that's what we needed. We learned the hard way, but we've learned."

One lesson he learned was consistency. Gil de Ferran, last year's CART champion, won two races but finished 36 points ahead of runner-up Kenny Brack and 59 points ahead of da Matta, a three-time winner last season.

This year, da Matta won four straight races, building a huge points lead. He has maintained that edge since by finishing second or third in three other races and winning one.

"His team this year has been up front in every race and they've finished most of the races," Michael Andretti said. "That's been the difference."

There has been plenty of speculation about da Matta's future with CART. He has tested Formula One cars and said there was a "50-50" chance he'll join F1.

Now, da Matta sounds more unsure about his future.

"In a perfect world, I'll be driving for CART next year, but you cannot say that we're not in a bit of a crisis," da Matta said. "We need to pick up our spot again with the motor racing world, and hopefully that will start down here this week."

He expects to see a large contingent of Brazilian fans in Miami but remains unfazed by the expectation.

"I'm trying to keep it like just another race, one race at a time," da Matta said. "But when you can race in your hometown, a block from where you live, it's a special thing."

ROAD FOR EARNHARDT: A North Carolina state road in Iredell and Cabarrus counties is set to be renumbered N.C. 3 in honor of NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt.

The road is N.C. 136, but the North Carolina General Assembly agreed Wednesday to swap that number with the N.C. 3 now in Currituck County.

Earnhardt, who died in a wreck at Daytona International Speedway in 2001, drove a No. 3 Chevrolet. He lived in Cabarrus County and ran his business enterprises in Iredell County.

The approved legislation by the House will go before Gov. Mike Easley to be signed into law.

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