Juan Montoya beat Michael Andretti to the line by four hundredths of a second in another classic race at the two mile Michigan Superspeedway.
If one race in the Fed-Ex Championship Series can guarantee a grandstand finish, it is Michigan. From Scott Pruett's emotional first win in 1995 through to Tony Kanaan's last gasp triumph last year, CART's premier 500 mile race in the absence of the Indy 500 has always delivered a fantastic showcase for US oval racing. Sunday's Michigan 500 Presented by Toyota was a fine example.
Paul Tracy's record breaking pole position lap time was about as useful as an ash-tray on a motorbike when the green flag dropped for the first time under a bright blue Michigan sky. Swamped from either side, the Canadian found himself back in sixth place by the end of lap one as the field started how they meant to go on by dicing side by side all the way around the opening two miles.
The man who anticipated the green flag best was Gil De Ferran in the leading Team Penske entry who darted down to the inside from fifth on the grid. Tracy and fellow front row man Michael Andretti found themselves engulfed from both sides as De Ferran, Juan Montoya and Christian Fittipaldi all swept past into the first corner.
By the end of the opening lap De Ferran had been demoted to third behind Montoya and Andretti who proceeded to wow the sun baked crowd with a wheel to wheel scrap that lasted for a full 15 laps. Andretti would take the lead on the back straight only for Montoya to sneak through on the run to the line. Although the lead changed more than a dozen times, Andretti didn't officially lead a lap until lap 13, by which time the lead pair had been joined by Kenny Brack, Fittipaldi, De Ferran and a most impressive Helio Castroneves.
Castroneves, who had started 13th after an engine failure spoilt his qualifying run, quickly moved up on the leaders and swept past to take the lead around the outside of the second turn.
Soon after Castroneves took the lead, the front runners started encountering traffic and the top five cars began to break away from the closely following pack.
Once his battle with Montoya had been interrupted, Andretti quickly dropped behind the lead group and let his Newman-Haas team-mate Fittipaldi take up the challenge at the front. Castroneves somehow managed to sustain his lead but was put under intense pressure from Montoya, Brack, Fittipaldi and the ever impressive Cristiano Da Matta. A little way behind the leading quintet Max Papis was sustaining the form which took him to within yards of victory here last year and was heading the second bunch which included Andretti, De Ferran, Patrick Carpentier, Adrian Fernandez, Mauricio Gugelmin and Jimmy Vasser. Paul Tracy and Dario Franchitti had dropped to 14th and 16th respectively by lap 30 but were still on the same lap as the leader which was more than could be said of the man at the top of the points table Roberto Moreno.
Battling with a car which was unnervingly loose, Moreno spent the first 20 laps dicing in the lower reaches of the top 20 with Mark Blundell, Memo Gidley and Tarso Marques. His Team Patrick Reynard-Ford was not handling well in traffic and Roberto soon lost touch with the lead group and fell a lap behind the leader on the 27th tour.