By: Spencer Neff
January 24, 2019 | 12:00 PM
Welcome to another edition of IndyCar Flashback. Prior to this season, Christian Fittipaldi announced that the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway will be his last race.
Although Fittipaldi last ran in open-wheel cars in 2002, he still made a solid career out of his seven years in the series. In keeping with the salute to Fittipaldi’s career, we take a look at the 2000 Marlboro 500 presented by Toyota.
The season finale at California Speedway had become one of the most exciting events of the year in its first three runnings.
With six title contenders, eye-popping speeds and $1 million each up for grabs for the winner and season champion, the 2000 race would continue that trend.
Fittipaldi Wins, De Ferran clinches title in chaotic finale
The 2000 CART FedEx Championship Series season had become one of the most competitive in history.
10 different drivers had won a race and five had been atop the points standings. Headed to the finale, six drivers were eligible for the season championship.
By the end of qualifying, that number would be down to four.
Gil de Ferran used a record-setting qualifying speed of 241.428 MPH to earn the pole, The speed broke Mauricio Gugelmin’s 1997 track and closed-course record (240.942 MPH).
After crashing on the first lap in the previous race at Surfers Paradise, de Ferran’s pole was a big confidence boost.
De Ferran and Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves combined to lead the first 26 laps.
On Lap 22, PPI Motorsports’ Cristiano da Matta crashed in Turn 4.
Caught up in da Matta’s accident would be championship contender Paul Tracy. The Team KOOL Green driver would be unable to continue on, ending his bid for a championship.
Shortly after the crash, Mother Nature struck. Rain forced the postponement of the race’s conclusion until the following day. When the race resumed, Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Juan Montoya led.
Although the defending champion was unable to repeat, he could make more history. Montoya looked to become the first driver since Al Unser in 1978 to win three 500-mile races in one season.
When racing resumed on Lap 40, Montoya was quickly overtaken by Michigan 500 runner-up Michael Andretti.
The Hanford Device (superspeedway rear-wing) continued living up to its reputation for massive drafting and numerous lead changes.
Between Lap 41 and 75, no driver led for more than eight consecutive laps. The frantic pace was aided by a green flag run that stretched until Memo Gidley’s engine blew on Lap 80.
Gidley’s engine failure proved to be the first of four engine failures over the next 51 laps, including Tony Kanaan’s (which triggered a multi-car crash). Between Lap 87 and 186, no driver led for more than nine consecutive laps.
Shortly after Max Papis’ accident on Lap 183, Casey Mears would end that streak. The second-generation (son of Roger and nephew of Rick) driver, making his CART debut, led from Lap 186 until 195.
Mears quickly lost the lead to Dale Coyne Racing’s Alex Baron on the restart and the two were quickly overtaken by the frontrunners.
As Team Rahal’s Kenny Brack (who led 47 laps, most all day) fell out of the race and championship contention, Montoya and Castroneves continued to dominate.
On Lap 220, Montoya’s engine let go. His championship reign and a shot at three 500-mile race win in a season would come to an end. It also marked his last race with Ganassi, as he moved to Formula 1 in 2001.
Newman-Haas’ Christian Fittipaldi beat the championship contenders off pit road on the final stop of the day.
Soon after the Lap 226 restart, trouble struck Castroneves. The Honda engine in his Reynard expired, sending him crashing into the Turn 1 wall.
When the field returned to green on Lap 238, Fittipaldi got out to a big lead over Barron and Roberto Moreno, with de Ferran in fourth. On Lap 240, Barron’s suprise run came to an end when his engine let go.
Fortunately for the leads, the incident was quickly cleaned up and the race restarted with six laps to go. As de Ferran held serve in fourth, Adrian Fernandez was unable to gain any ground and was passed by Mears for fourth.
With two laps to go, third-place Alex Tagliani crashed into the Turn 1 wall as his engine let go, bringing out the 11th and final caution of the day.
The race and championship ended. Fittipaldi would coast to his second career win and the ensuing $1 million bonus. His 29 consecutive laps led to end the race was the most by any driver.
De Ferran crossed the line in third, good enough to win the championship and the $1 million prize. Fernandez finished ten points back following his fifth-place effort. Roberto Moreno climbed from 19th to finish second in the race and third in the final standings.
The championship proved to be even more special for De Ferran’s car owner Roger Penske. It would mark his first since 1994 (Al Unser Jr.).
As the new millennium continued on, the landscape continued to change for CART. Penske, Ganassi, Team Green and Patrick Racing moved on to the IRL within the next three years.
Fittipaldi would not win after this race and would leave CART for NASCAR after the 2002 season.
On Saturday, Fittipaldi will run his final career race in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway.