Nothing was going to slow Juan Montoya.
Not Michael Andretti, whose car was so close to his that Montoya almost felt like he was driving both of them.
Not Tarso Marques, whose lapped car was right in front as the two former CART FedEx Series champions charged off the fourth turn on the last lap of Sunday's spectacular Michigan 500.
One of the greatest duels in the history of open-wheel racing ended with Montoya snatching the victory from Andretti by less than a car-length at Michigan Speedway.
Using a timely tow from Marques off the final turn of the 250-lap race, Montoya held off Andretti by 0.040 seconds after 17 laps of breathtaking wheel-to-wheel racing at speeds up to 225 mph.
The determined drivers swapped the lead at least once on each of those laps and nearly touched wheels between turns three and four on the final trip around the 2-mile, high-banked oval. But neither would give ground.
During that period, with the crowd approaching 50,000 screaming its approval and gasping on every close call, the lead was never bigger than 0.679 seconds.
On the final lap, Andretti allowed Montoya to drive into the lead in the first turn, setting him up for a pass in turn three. It worked to perfection, with Andretti diving low on the bank and nosing ahead as the leaders charged off the final turn.
"It's a shame because we had a perfect race and we did everything that we wanted to do," Andretti said.
Montoya, who earlier this year ran away with the rival Indy Racing League's showcase Indianapolis 500 in completely different equipment, gave Toyota its first 500-mile race win and only its second victory ever in the CART FedEx Series.
"When I would pass Michael, he would just pass me back and pass me back and pass me back," Montoya said. "The cars were just so close together at times it was amazing. Everything was about timing and who would cross the line first.
"I thought we were going to go into the last corner side by side and then there was this guy in front us," the 24-year-old defending CART champion added. "I thought, `I'm not going to lift. If I'm going to have to hit the guy I'm going to hit him.'"
Montoya, who won seven times in 1999 on the way to a championship in his rookie year, came up with only his second CART victory of this season, but jumped from ninth to fifth in the standings, trailing Andretti by 30 points after 11 of 20 races.
Andretti, a two-time Michigan winner, actually gained the series points lead with his second-place run and was smiling when he said, "(Marques) could have helped me win or help Juan, and he helped Juan. I started to catch his draft coming off the corner. He started to go low and then he went high and allowed Juan to suction up behind him. That's the difference.
"We laid back and saved fuel and the whole bit. We had what we needed to fight at the end and we lost it."
Andretti, who came into the race trailing Roberto Moreno by two points in the season standings, came away leading by 14 after Moreno, who fell to second, went out early with a mechanical problem and finished out of the points.
After some early laps that were almost as exciting as the finish, it appeared the grueling race might be determined not by hard racing but by a fuel economy run, with Helio Castroves leading the way and Adrian Fernandez running second and getting the best mileage.
"It was a bit of a joke out there for a while," Andretti said. "We were all conserving fuel and it felt like we shooting a movie out there. But it was OK because it was just setting up what happened at the end."
Actually, the finish was set up when Christian Fittipaldi, Andretti's teammate and one of the leaders throughout the race, suddenly veered off the track at high speed on lap 221 and had a frightening ride through the grass on the backstretch.
Although Fittipaldi didn't hit anything in bringing out the fifth and final caution of the race, he got out of the car limping badly and was put on a stretcher and taken to the infield medical center complaining of severe pain in his right leg. CART officials later said his injuries were nothing more than bruises.
The caution period allowed several of the leaders, including Montoya, to pit for fuel and left the rest of the front-runners enough to finish the race without worry.
The race featured 52 official lead changes second only to the 62 here two years ago and unofficially 162 overall. Official lead changes are scored only at the finish line.
The finish was the third closest in CART history and made up for Montoya's lose to Tony Kanaan in 1999 by 0.032 seconds. That race, however, did not have the overall drama of this one because Max Papis dominated before running out of fuel while leading on the last lap.
Montoya averaged 186.087 mph, just a bit shy of Al Unser Jr.'s all-time 500-mile record of 189.727 in 1990.
Dario Franchitti finished third, followed by Patrick Carpentier, Castroneves, Fernandez and pole-winner Paul Tracy, the last driver on the lead lap.
There were two significant crashes in the race, with Fittipaldi squeezing 1999 Indy winner Kenny Brack into the wall on lap 98 and rookie Alex Tagliani losing control and crashing hard while leading on lap 161.
Brack, a CART rookie, was trying to pass Fittipaldi for second when the two-car incident occurred. Fittipaldi was able to drive to the pits for repairs and continue, but the irate Brack was done for the day.
"I don't know if his mirror fell off or his spotter fell asleep, but he didn't see me and it was a big hit," Brack said after regaining his composure.
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