The most competitive championship race in CART history must make drivers wonder: Does anybody really want the Vanderbilt Cup and the $1 million that goes with it?
It certainly doesn't look like it right now. There have been nine different winners, and no driver has been able to sustain a hot streak through more than a handful of races.
With just three races to go, beginning with the Texaco-Havoline Grand Prix on Oct. 1 in Houston, the top 10 drivers in the standings have more than just a mathematical chance to win the title.
"I knew this series had great competition, but until I got here I had no idea just how close it was," said CART rookie Kenny Brack, who came over from the rival Indy Racing League, where he won the 1999 Indianapolis 500 and finished second in the points.
"Typically, at every CART race, we have more than half the field running within a second," Brack said, shaking his head. "You can't make any mistakes on the track and your team can't afford any mistakes in the pits or you're out of it."
Actually, it's been more bad luck and mechanical problems than mistakes that have turned this year's championship into the closest and best ever.
People thought last year's title chase was a good one. Then-rookie Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti tied for the points lead, but Montoya got the title because he had won seven races to Franchitti's three.
It turns out last season was just a warmup for 2000.
Following Montoya's victory Sunday in Madison, Ill., the standings show Gil de Ferran out front, followed by Roberto Moreno, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Adrian Fernandez and Brack. The separation is only 19 points.
Each race has a maximum of 22 points -- one for the pole, 20 for winning and one for leading the most laps. That means if the circumstances were right, any of those six drivers could be leading the standings following the Houston race.
Helio Castroneves, at No. 7, trails de Ferran by 30 points, followed by Montoya, Cristiano da Matta and Jimmy Vasser -- the 10th-place driver who is 40 points behind the leader.
"It would take some unusual circumstances, but we're not out of it," said Vasser, the 1996 champion. "The way things have gone this year, nothing is impossible. We just have to win a couple of races and see what happens."
Montoya, his teammate, has much the same mind-set, especially after his third CART victory of the season suddenly put him into the title picture.
"I didn't expect to have this chance," Montoya said with a happy grin. "Maybe we'll win a couple more races and then ... anything could happen."
Andretti, the 1991 champion, could easily have had this one wrapped up by now if not for some bad luck, shared during his CART and Formula One racing days by father Mario.
"You can't drive any better than Michael has this year," said Mario.
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