Sunday, November 10, 2002

Will Fittipaldi be first of new wave of drivers?

NASCAR notebook

Enquirer news services

AVONDALE, Ariz. - Christian Fittipaldi could be a trend-setter.

The Brazilian driver, a star in the struggling CART Champ car series, will make his first Winston Cup start today in the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Fittipaldi comes from an open-wheel heritage, the son of former Formula One driver Wilson Fittipaldi and the nephew of F1 champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi.

He began the transition last year, racing in a NASCAR Busch Series event in Homestead, Fla., where he crashed and finished 39th after driving just over halfway.

This year, getting into stock cars only sporadically as he ran the full CART season, Fittipaldi finished 35th and 43rd in his only Busch starts.

Despite his lack of experience in cars with roofs, Petty Enterprises hired Fittipaldi, planning to run him in a combination of ARCA, Busch and Winston Cup races in 2003. Driver changes in Petty's No.44 Dodge prompted team boss Kyle Petty to give Fittipaldi an unexpected shot at a Cup race during an off weekend between the last two CART races of the season.

The 31-year-old driver responded by qualifying 17th Friday, ahead of a number of drivers with a lot more experience.

"I'm happy to qualify this way for my first race," Fittipaldi said. "Jumping from one car to another isn't helping a lot."

Some success here by Fittipaldi could herald the beginning of a steady flow of open-wheel drivers to the Winston Cup garages. Max Papis and Jimmy Vasser, both without open-wheel rides for 2003, have been making the rounds, sounding out NASCAR team owners.

Papis, an Italian driver who lost his CART ride early this season when his team ran out of money, said he is scheduled for a test drive with an unnamed team after the season is over.

MILITARY INVOLVEMENT: The U.S. Army will sponsor a Winston Cup car in 2003. A spokesman said the Army will be the primary sponsor for 27 of 36 races next year for an MB2 Pontiac driven by Jerry Nadeau. It will remain on the car as an associate sponsor for the other nine races.

PHOENIX STAT: Fords have won 10 of the 14 Winston Cup races at Phoenix and have at least two top-five finishes in each of the events.

BUSCH SERIES: Scott Wimmer won the Basha's Supermarket 200 under a yellow flag, but this was Greg Biffle's day.

Biffle clinched the NASCAR Busch Series championship on Saturday, leading all but the last 16 laps of the 200-lap race at Phoenix International Speedway. He wound up third, just ahead of series runner-up Jason Keller.

Biffle is the only driver to have won titles in both the Busch and Craftsman Truck Series (2000) and has given team owner Jack Roush his only NASCAR championships.

Wimmer, one of the hottest drivers in the circuit in the last half of the season and a distant third in the standings, won for the third time in the last seven races.

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