The little Brazilian came up big in his race car, becoming the fourth first-time winner in CART this season and earning his first win in 51 starts at the top level of the open-wheel sport.
"It's very good to win a race again," said da Matta, who won seven times in 27 Indy Lights starts before moving up to CART in 1999 as the reigning Lights champion. "It's been almost two years, and it's good to refresh the feeling. When you remember, you just want to have it again and again and again."
Da Matta, who claims to be 5-foot-3 and 130 pounds but appears smaller, took the lead late in the race at Chicago Motor Speedway, during a series of pit stops. He was able to stay well ahead of points leader Michael Andretti, who remained in da Matta's mirrors through the final 33 laps on the 1.029-mile oval.
"The first part of the race was very confusing for me," said da Matta, who started fifth in the 24-car field. "I was involved in a lot of fights. But the last part of the race was probably the easiest for me. I really didn't have too much to worry about because Michael was too far (behind) to do anything."
Da Matta's Toyota-powered Reynard crossed the finish line 1.69 seconds about 20 car-lengths ahead of Andretti's Lola-Ford to make him the ninth different winner in 12 races this season.
Matching countryman and former housemate Rubens Barrichello, who won his first Formula One race earlier in the day in Germany, da Matta was excited, but not nearly as emotional as the sobbing Ferrari driver.
"It was incredible," the 26-year-old da Matta said. "I've won some races in other series, but this was just a different emotion. And I'm so happy for Rubens. Both of us knew our day would come."
The youngster was almost as happy for PPI Motorsports owner Cal Wells III, whose team has been at the forefront of the development of the Toyota engine since the company entered the CART FedEx Series in 1996.
"It's his first win, too, and that makes me very happy," da Matta said. "This win is for Cal and for Jeff Krosnoff."
Krosnoff, Wells' driver in 1996, his first full season in CART, was killed in a crash in Toronto.
"This victory means a lot to me and everyone on our team," said Wells, who also started a Winston Cup team this year and has had little success so far in stock cars. "You can't get down more than we've been down in our Cup program, but CART is pretty tough, too.
"We feel like things are going in the right direction now in Cup, and this proves we're going in the right direction here."
Da Matta's success didn't just pop out of nowhere, although his previous best finish in just over a season and a half in the Champ car series was a third earlier this month in Cleveland. He had finished in the top five three times in is last four starts, as well as running competitively in several other races this season before succumbing to mechanical problems.
With CART requiring a rear wing on the short ovals that makes passing for position nearly impossible, the 225-lap race turned into a strategy game.
Juan Montoya, the defending series champion and defending race winner, started from the pole, led 110 laps and seemed headed for another victory before an electrical problem ended his day on lap 178. That came moments after his final pit stop left him just behind da Matta under the sixth and final caution flag of the afternoon.
"We were really fast," said Montoya, coming off a spectacular victory over Andretti the previous Sunday in Michigan. "I thought this was going to be like last year, but it didn't happen. The car just stopped. It's frustrating."
When Montoya's car suddenly rolled to a stop on the track, the crowd of more than 50,000 roared, and Andretti tucked up right behind da Matta for the restart on lap 183.
But Andretti, who came into the race leading Roberto Moreno by 14 points in the standings, quickly lost ground and never came close to catching the leader.
"On the (last) restart, I was a fraction of an inch from losing it," Andretti said. "Cristiano was able to open a full straightaway on us."
Da Matta pulled out to leads of more than four seconds before running into slower traffic in the waning laps.
Andretti, the CART leader with 40 career victories, drove hard to catch da Matta. But he lapped fellow Brazilian Mauricio Gugelmin, putting a car between the leaders on lap 221, and it was no contest over the last four laps.
"You reel them in, but with these wings you can only reel them in so far," Andretti said. "As soon as we'd get within a second or two, I'd lose all of my air."
Asked when he knew he had the race won, da Matta said, "Only after the last pit stop. I knew I had a good car, but I got a little hard on the tires. I picked up too much push but, once I got by Gugelmin, I knew I was OK"
Gil de Ferran finished third, followed by Kenny Brack, Adrian Fernandez, Moreno - who fell 22 points behind Andretti - and Gugelmin.
Da Matta's victory was only the third for the Toyota engine, with Montoya providing the first two earlier this season.
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