By: Spencer Neff
September 19, 2019 | 8:25 AM
This is the final IndyCar Flashback for the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season. On Sunday, IndyCar racing returns to the popular WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on the California coast. After 14 years away, the 2.238-mile, 11-turn road course returns.
For the first time since 1996, Laguna Seca will also play host to the season finale. In this edition of IndyCar Flashback, we profile that very race.
At the beginning of the day, three drivers entered the race with a shot at the title. By day’s end, two drivers’ last-lap battle became the enduring memory of this race.
Zanardi edges Herta in Epic duel
After 15 of 16 rounds in the PPG CART World Series, three drivers remained in contention to win the championship. If he could earn a seventh-place finish, Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Jimmy Vasser would clinch his first championship.
A week earlier, Newman-Haas’ Michael Andretti won in dominating fashion on the streets of Vancouver to close to within 14 points of his second title. Although he was in jeopardy of his first winless season since 1987, Team Penske’s Al Unser Jr. still had a shot at his third title.
Before the race started, all three lost out on a critical bonus point. In qualifying, Vasser’s teammate Alex Zanardi continued his impressive rookie campaign. With a best lap of 118.475 mph, Zanardi set a new track record for the current layout. Alongside him was Team Rahal’s Bryan Herta, seeking his first career win.
From the start, Zanardi jumped out to an early lead. By Lap 3, that gap was erased as Paul Tracy and Parker Johnstone collided in Turn 5. After a four-lap caution flag period, the racing resumed and Zanardi pulled away yet again.
Among the first out of the race was Hall Racing’s Gil de Ferran, who won for the first time at Laguna Seca in 1995. For Hall, it would be a disappointing end in his final race as a team owner.
On Lap 27, Zanardi made his first stop of the day and relinquished the top spot to Herta, who would lead for the first time since Phoenix in 1995 while driving for Ganassi.
A lap later, Herta pitted and Vasser took the lead of the race. Following a slow refueling cycle, Vasser returned to the track and Zanardi continued to lead.
For the next 13 laps, Zanardi continued to lead. However, this stint would see Herta continue to keep Zanardi within his grasp. In Turn 2, Herta maneuvered his way past Zanardi to take the lead. Moments later, it was reported that Zanardi had suffered a punctured left-front tire.
With Zanardi working through his tire issues, Herta would go on to lead the next 41 laps. Soon after, Andretti spun in Turn 11 and damaged his suspension after contact with Bobby Rahal. Despite the damage, Andretti bravely continued on following a quick pit stop.
On Lap 53, Stefan Johansson crashed in Turn 2 when his rear wing broke. After the Bettenhausen Racing driver’s early exit, the race stayed under yellow for six laps, the last caution of the day.
With Zanardi’s tire issues resolved, he was able to return to the fray against Herta. In the waning laps of the race, Zanardi began to catch back up to Herta. On the final lap, he was within striking distance of his third win.
Heading into the legendary Corkscrew corner in Turn 8, Zanardi went off course.
As he made his way back onto the racing surface, he took the lead and would beat Herta to the checkered flag by 1.412 seconds. In third, Patrick Racing’s Scott Pruett rounded out the podium. After finishing 16th, Unser Jr. dropped to fourth in the championship.
In fourth, Vasser clinched the title by 22 points. Vasser’s win came 13 years after car owner Chip Ganassi finished third in the inaugural race at Laguna Seca – tied for his career-best finish.
Despite tying with Andretti, Zanardi finished third in points by virtue of his three wins to Andretti’s five.
A year later, Laguna Seca would not be the finale. However, it would be the site of another Ganassi “double”.
This time, Vasser won at his home track (the first California-born driver to do so) as Zanardi clinched his first of two straight titles. In 1998, Herta fended off Zanardi to win for the first time in his career.
A year later, Herta won again at the California road course. Only Bobby Rahal (1984-87), Michael Andretti (1991-92), Paul Tracy (1993-94) and Patrick Carpentier (2003-04) had completed back-to-back victories at the track.
This weekend, Herta, Vasser, Andretti and Rahal all return to Laguna Seca – this time as car owners. Meanwhile, Tracy is on the NBC commentary team.
Note: Thank you as always to everyone who participated in our poll on Twitter to select this week’s IndyCar Flashback and each week throughout the season. Look for more IndyCar Flashbacks and Fan Votes throughout the offseason and in 2020.