Adrian Fernandez inherited victory in the Rio 200, but only after the weekend's rookie sensation Alex Tagliani had spun away a late race lead.
Mexican Fernandez was in the right place at the right time when Tagliani overcooked it on a restart with ten laps to run, causing an accident which also involved Kenny Brack and Dario Franchitti.
The Canadian rookie seemingly had the race in his pocket for most of the afternoon, controlling the race from the start and only losing out as the pit-stops reshuffled the pack. He had raced away with Juan Montoya at the original green flag, all the time holding the Colombian back with a mixture of aggression and ability. He maintained a fuel pattern that allowed him to stay out while the others pitted for a second time, and was in the right place to re-assume control when makeshift replacement Kenny Brack stalled in the pits.
Then a wheel balance problem - caused either by a missing weight or a poor set of tyres - saw him lose it on the penultimate restart. A cloud of tyre smoke in turn one heralded a scramble not only for places, but also survival, in his wake, with Brack and Franchitti coming off worst. For Tagliani, though, it was almost the saddest end to a brilliant afternoon.
Fernandez was now best placed to benefit from the leader's misfortune, scything through the smoke and holding off the equally attentive Jimmy Vasser to assume top spot through the protracted yellow flag period.
The Mexican had climbed to seventh by the second round of stops, and made up places as his Patrick Racing crew went to work, emerging ahead of Brack in fifth spot. As the rest of the field filed in for fuel, Fernandez took up station behind Tagliani's Player's Reynard, looking good for a podium finish despite having started down in 16th position, and was in the right place to emerge from the Canadian's smokescreen in front.
Fernandez had every reason to thank his pit crew for their help in achieving his sixth career Champcar victory. They had not had to make a pit-stop yet this season, as mechanical problems had stopped the Mexican early in the previous two races, but performed faultlessly on both occasions in Brazil.
“I paid the price for not qualifying well, but I made a few passes and we had great pit stops,” the victor admitted, “ We didn't put on tyres at the last pit stop, and [the ones on the car] had 80 laps on them at the end. I just beat Jimmy out of the pits by a hair. That's what did it for us.”
Vasser and championship leader Paul Tracy, in third place, had been in contention throughout the race, and were frustrated not to be given a proper shot at the new leader when Tagliani spun again as the yellows he had caused were withdrawn for a dash to the line.