Jimmy Vasser scored his first win for nearly two years with a well judged ride around the bumpy streets of Houston as Gil De Ferran closed in on his first Fed-Ex Championship title.

Sunday's Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston made up in tension what it lacked in on track action and as the 100 laps drew to a close, a clear favourite finally emerged for this year's Fed-Ex Championship title.

Gil De Ferran's cool drive to third position was enough to give him a commanding 19 point lead in the points table with just two rounds to go and the Marlboro Team Penske driver is now red hot favourite to end the Target/Chip Ganassi team's four year reign as champions.

However the two Target sponsored Lola-Toyota's were the stars of the show when it was all said and done with Jimmy Vasser taking his first win since Fontana 1998 and reigning champion Juan Montoya coming home in second position to keep his title hopes alive, just. In fact both Vasser and Montoya can still mathematically win this year's championship, as do Roberto Moreno, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Adrian Fernandez, Kenny Brack, and Helio Castroneves although it will take a remarkable downturn in fortunes for De Ferran to lose the title now.

Surfers Paradise is next and De Ferran's Reynard-Honda package will be definitely be amongst the pace -setters. The Fontana Superspeedway is a bit of an unknown and virtually anything can happen which means De Ferran will be looking to wrap up the title in Australia in two weeks time.

The Brazilian could well have won Sunday's event after making the bold decision to make a second pit stop as his rivals played it cautiously and tried to make the flag on just one stop. The fuel dilemma came about after eleven of the first twelve laps were run under caution after second place man Dario Franchitti clipped the wall at turn five just after the field were unleashed on the back straight. As he entered turn one for the first time at racing speed, Franchitti's right front suspension bowed under the strain and the Scotsman found himself in the tyres and out of the race.

No sooner had the field been given the green on lap six, Max Papis suddenly lost power as he tried to negotiate the tight Turn two. With nowhere to go, the following Memo Gidley rode up over the rear of Papis' Reynard-Ford giving the course workers an interesting problem in separating the two cars without causing any undue damage.

Papis was out with mechanical problems that left him with no drive out of the corner in the first place while Gidley was able to continue for a short while, four laps down and with a deranged suspension and eventually called it a day after 47 laps.

When the real racing got underway, pole man De Ferran was able to ease out a slight lead over Vasser who had the battling Castroneves and Montoya right behind him. The Colombian's attempts to get past Helio were easily the highlight of the opening 50 laps with the two drivers running side by side through the concrete lined streets on several occasions, neither one conceding but both giving each other just enough room to race hard. As in Vancouver Castroneves repelled the Colombian's challenge and it wasn't until the first round of pit stops that commenced on lap 50 that he was able to forge ahead.

De Ferran retained his lead after stopping although up to second now came Roberto Moreno who, alongside Patrick team-mate Adrian Fernandez, had elected to stop for fuel during the early race caution periods and could therefore afford to stay on track and pray for a caution period.

Vasser was now third ahead of his team-mate after another superb effort from the Ganassi crew with Fernandez now in fifth and Michael Andretti up to a threatening sixth. Castroneves found himself back in eighth position behind Tracy and the latter quartet proceeded to engage in a furious struggle until the caution flag came out as Shinji Nakano made light contact with the tyres.

This allowed Moreno and Fernandez to make their final stops and of the leaders, only Andretti chose to top his tank up, a decision the American would soon regret as he stalled his Newman-Haas Lola-Ford and was relegated to tenth, which was where his real troubles began. Fernandez and Moreno emerged seventh and eighth in the queue respectively as Nakano gathered himself together and continued.

With 40 laps to go, each driver was left with a choice to either go for it and make a late stop or play conservatively and try to make it on just one fuel stop. From the moment the race went green on lap 60 it was clear that De Ferran was choosing the former option as he streaked away from the field at a rate of nearly a second a lap. From laps 61 to 75 the Brazilian set 14 consecutive fastest laps and was well over ten seconds ahead of the field with just a quarter of the race to go.

The only other front-runner to make a charge was Tony Kanaan who, mindful of his Mercedes poor consumption figures threw caution to the wind and scythed up from sixth position to pass Castroneves, Tracy and Montoya within the space of ten laps to take third place on lap 74.

Two laps after taking the final podium spot, Kanaan and De Ferran were handed a lifeline when Tarso Marques, who was on course for his first top ten finish of the year, rolled to a halt on the track bringing out the yellow flag.

De Ferran and Kanaan dived into the pits and while Kanaan dropped back to eighth, such was De Ferran's lead he only lost two places as the two Target/Chip Ganassi cars swept into a potential one-two situation.

Vasser lead but many wondered whether he would let Montoya through as the Colombian had a better chance of taking the title. In addition to that, both drivers had a fully fuelled De Ferran to contend with whilst they would have to watch their dials carefully. If Vasser was to win his first race of the year he would have to fend off his team-mate, the championship leader and run for nearly 50 laps on a single tank of fuel.

However luck fell Vasser's way when Alex Tagliani tapped Andretti going into Turn eight on lap 78 whilst battling for ninth spot. Behind these two there was a chain reaction as Oriol Servia, Cristiano Da Matta and Nakano all had nowhere to go and screeched to a halt on the outside of the track. Next round was Brack who found the track blocked and gave Tagliani a hefty clout in the rear, pushing the Player's car further into the side pod of a disbelieving Andretti.

Tagliani and Brack were out on the spot, seriously damaging the latter's title hopes while the remaining participants all managed to keep their engines running and were pushed in the right direction and sent on their way. The job of detaching Andretti from Tagliani was tougher and as the course workers struggled to free the two cars, the leaders actually had to stop on the track as the way through was blocked. Thankfully no-one let their engines die and despite the clutches all taking a serious pounding, everyone eventually found a way through.

As the laps under yellow continued to mount, the fuel-laden De Ferran saw his hopes disappear for Vasser and Montoya could now save yet more fuel thus negating the need for a splash and dash. Although both would have to keep the mixture relatively lean, De Ferran's extra weight would hinder his progress rather than aid it.

Sure enough when the green flag fell for the final time on lap 84, Vasser was able to ease out a second advantage as his team-mate kept De Ferran at bay. This battle allowed Tracy to close up in fourth position and the more cynical amongst us suggested that maybe Montoya was trying to get Tracy past De Ferran and take some more valuable points away from the Team Penske driver. If that was the case it was very risky although Paul did his best to comply and made several concerted efforts at the end of the back straight and on the way into Turn One.

De Ferran hung on and at the end of the race the trio were separated by just eight tenths of a second with Vasser a full two seconds to the good at the head of the field.

This win marks the first for Vasser since Montoya joined the Ganassi team and the American driver was quick to mention his previous team-mate and close friend Alex Zanardi as he celebrated. Vasser became the tenth different winner this year and kept himself in the title battle, albeit more than 30 points adrift of De Ferran with just 44 left to be claimed.

Montoya too was pleased with his result although it would have been nicer had De Ferran not finished directly behind him. As it stands the Colombian is still 31 points behind De Ferran as the Penske driver picked up two bonus points for pole position and leading most laps.

For the rest of the title contenders it was a bad day. Tracy ran consistently to fourth after battling past Castroneves as the two left the pit-lane and the two held their positions until the end. The Team KOOL Green driver is now 19 points behind De Ferran and Castroneves an almost impossible 36.

Christian Fittipaldi was a smooth sixth in the leading Newman-Haas car while Fernandez could climb no higher than seventh in the closing laps. Still yet more superb pit-work and tactics from the Patrick team saw the Mexican climb from 16th on the grid and remain in the title chase, 26 marks off the lead.

Shinji Nakano survived his small altercation with the tyres to record his best finish since Homestead with a fine eighth place effort ahead of Servia and a disappointed Kanaan who lost power in the closing stages when an exhaust header broke. Moreno finished eleventh after having his seat belts come undone while Alex Barron rounded out the points scorers to give Dale Coyne something to smile about after watching Marques battling with the leading runners for the first half of the race.

Andretti and Da Matta completed the finishers although for Andretti he may just as well crashed on the first lap for all the good that 13th place did him. The American veteran will have to pull something special out of the bag if he is to take his second CART title and the number One plate to Barry Green's stable next year.