MIAMI -- Cristiano da Matta and Bruno Junqueira come from nearly identical backgrounds: Brazilian heritage, sons of racing fathers, and successful go-cart careers.
Now, Junqueira wants to have something else in common with da Matta - his name etched on the Vanderbilt Cup, the oversized silver chalice presented to the CART series champion.
Da Matta won the title last year, then accepted an offer from Toyota and joined Formula One, the world's premier open-wheel circuit.
Junqueira, second in the CART standings last year, enters Sunday's Grand Prix of the Americas trailing Canada's Paul Tracy in the standings.
"It's a really important race here in Miami," Junqueira said. "If I can finish in front of him, I can reduce the difference between us in the race for the championship, or maybe even pass him if I win and he doesn't score any points. It's going to be important to stay close."
Junqueira enters Friday's first qualifying run 18 points behind Tracy. Unlike a year ago, when da Matta clinched the title with a victory, four drivers are still in contention for the points crown.
Tracy has 204 points. Junqueira is at 186, while Michel Jourdain has 165 and Sebastien Bourdais is at 142.
"It's going to be quite exciting," Junqueira said.
The standings could change quickly. A driver can claim a maximum of 23 points in any racing weekend: 20 for a win, one for turning the fastest lap in each qualifying session and another for leading the most laps during a race.
"I think (Tracy) would be a great champion, great name to adorn the trophy. Bruno is not going to lay down, though," said CART driver Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 series champion. "I think Jourdain is in there, too, with a good chance. He's real consistent."
Junqueira, in his first season with the Newman-Haas racing team - the same group that helped da Matta to the series title last year - has two wins, including a victory in CART's last event, the Grand Prix of Denver on Aug. 31.
Tracy has six wins and Bourdais has three, but Junqueira has remained in contention through consistency. He's earned eight top-three finishes and placed among the top five 11 times in 13 races this year.
He credits the new team for much of that success.
"The team is very professional, very passionate for racing," Junqueira said. "They don't look at it as a job. All the mechanics, engineers, team managers, most of them have been there for a long, long time."
A local connection is adding to the excitement this weekend. Junqueira and several other drivers, including Bourdais, American rookie Ryan Hunter-Reay, Roberto Moreno, Oriol Servia, have made South Florida their adopted homes.
Junqueira's home on posh Brickell Key is only a 15-minute walk to the stretches of asphalt converted into a temporary street circuit.
"It's a good feeling to race at home," Junqueira said. "I've got a lot of friends coming out to the race to support me, so it's extra important to do well here."
He was primed to do well in Miami last year, leading the race by nearly 11 seconds at one point. But a pit stop on the 20th lap, instead of the scheduled 21st, meant Junqueira had to pit three times during the race while most other cars only pitted twice. The result was a fifth-place finish.
"It was frustrating, but I'm over it and thinking about this year," Junqueira said. "You can't be frustrated every time you don't win. I'm just hoping I'm not frustrated after this race."
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