LONG BEACH, Calif.-- When Paul Tracy went to bed Saturday night, he wasn't feeling very confident.
Not only had he qualified 17th for the second time in the young season, his Reynard-Honda wasn't handling well enough to give the 31-year-old Canadian much hope for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
That all changed Sunday, thanks to new Team Kool Green engineer Steve Challis.
Challis previously worked with Greg Moore, killed last year in the season-ending race in Fontana, Calif.
''We were just lost all weekend,'' Tracy explained after driving to the 16th victory of his CART FedEx Series career and second in the streets of Long Beach. ''We'd exhausted all the setup ideas we had, all our notes from previous races and we weren't really getting anywhere.
''Then Steve broke out one of Greg's notebooks from last year and we put on one of their setups and the car was just perfect.''
His performance was the farthest back a winner has started on a temporary street circuit since Al Unser Jr. won from 19th in 1986 on the old downtown course in Miami.
''That's two races now we've started in the back, but there's no panic on this team,'' Tracy said. ''Starting 17th, the plan for us was just to stay alive and not get in a wreck.
''Being a lot less patient in the past, I would put my nose in where it shouldn't be and get it chopped off. This time, I wasn't being overaggressive and we stuck to our plan.''
It worked to perfection for Tracy, who avoided most of the trouble that knocked out all but 12 of the 25 starters in the 82-lap event race. The win, combined with a third-place finish in the season-opener in Homestead, Fla., moved Tracy, who never has finished better than third in the series, into the points lead.
Tracy's only close call came in the pits on lap 11 when several of the drivers made their first stops during the first of six caution periods on the 1.968-mile, 11-turn circuit winding around the downtown convention center and along Long Beach harbor.
Michael Andretti darted out of his pit just ahead of Tracy, who bumped the rear of Andretti's car. But neither sustained any serious damage.
''His guy waved him out right in front of me,'' Tracy said. ''It got me up in the air and, luckily, we hit pretty square and it didn't bend anything. After that, we hooked up with Michael and came up through the field.''
With teams trying a variety of fuel strategies on the tight course, team owner Barry Green's crew chose to go with three pit stops and watch the race unfold. It worked as Tracy took over lead on lap 62, passing rookie Takuya Kurosawa, the first Japanese driver to lead a CART event.
''I can't say enough for Paul,'' Green said. ''I really think it's the best race that I've ever seen him drive.''
With most of the contenders, including Andretti, falling out with mechanical problems or getting caught up in accidents, Tracy went unchallenged the rest of the way.
Helio Castro-Neves and 1996 Long Beach winner Jimmy Vasser had an intense battle for second during the final 18 laps, with Castro-Neves holding him off by half a car length for second.
''I know Helio was having trouble with his tires going away and with fuel, but he did a good job of holding me off,'' said Vasser, the 1996 CART champion, whose Target/Chip Ganassi Racing team had won the last four Long Beach races.
Castro-Neves, a 24-year-old Brazilian in his first year with Marlboro Team Penske, matched his career-best finish for the third time as he crossed the finish line 3.191 seconds behind Tracy.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.