Monday, Nov. 5, 2001 | 9:35 a.m.
FONTANA, Calif. -- The last place Cristiano da Matta wanted to be was in the lead with five laps remaining in Sunday's Marlboro 500 at California Speedway.
As it turned out, it was the only place to be.
Da Matta beat Max Papis to the start/finish line by seven-thousandths of a second just as a caution flag came out, giving the Brazilian driver a million-dollar win as the CART season finale finished under the yellow flag. Pole-sitter Alex Tagliani of Las Vegas took third.
As the series-record 73 lead changes among 19 drivers proved, no driver wanted to be out front until the last lap.
"My team, at a certain point, was screaming for me not to lead so much that I had to come back on the radio and tell them to shut up because it was starting to bother me," da Matta said.
The 73 lead changes shattered the previous CART record of 62, set in the U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway in 1998. The 19 different race leaders also was a series high, bettering the previous mark of 12 set last year at California Speedway.
As for the race to the start/finish line, da Matta said, "I knew it was close, but I knew I was ahead."
At the 200-lap mark, the race -- which started an hour later than scheduled due to an early morning drizzle -- was shortened from 250 to 220 laps because of impending darkness. The change disrupted the strategy of Papis, who had pitted later than da Matta and did not have to conserve fuel late in the race.
"Definitely, the Miller Lite car was the car to beat but fate was not with me," a heartbroken Papis said. "First of all, I want to know why a (250-lap) race comes down to a 220-lap race. I still have a question mark about that."
Papis was in 10th place on a restart with 18 laps remaining but charged to the lead in 10 laps. Da Matta regained the lead on the following lap and, with the two running side-by-side, edged Papis at the start-finish line as Scott Dixon hit the wall in Turn 4 to bring out the caution.
Even da Matta, who scored his third win of the season, acknowledged that it would have been hard to hold off Papis had the race gone the scheduled distance.
"When they shortened the race, it was very good news for me," da Matta said. "Max stopped and got gas (on lap 190) and I did not stop and it would have benefited him (if it went the distance) because he would have been able to run with more power because I would have had to save fuel."
For Papis, it was the second time he has posted a runner-up finish in the million-dollar, season-ending race.
"This is the second time it happens to me," Papis said. "First place, one million dollars ... second place, sixty thousand dollars."
It was an emotional day for Papis on more than one front; the Italian was driving in his final race for team owners Bobby Rahal and David Letterman and is uncertain about his driving future.
"This was my last race for Team Rahal," Papis said. "I don't know if this is 'goodbye' or 'see you later' because there are a lot of things still up in the air."
Tagliani, who scored his second straight third-place finish and third podium finish of the season, had a different take on the race that many among the estimated 70,000 fans considered to be the best in CART history.
"It's a long race and just boring sometimes," Tagliani said. "I got in the lead only once and nobody wanted to get by me again. I was just lifting and lifting (on the gas) and I was running in fifth gear on the straightaway and then everybody got by.
"It was a question of trying to save fuel ... and keep your nose clean and stay out of trouble."
And stay out of the lead.