SAN FRANCISCO -- The greatest America's Cup in 162 years could only end one way.
With one final race.
Oracle Team USA, which at one time trailed 8-1, continued perhaps the greatest comeback in sports. The American team won its sixth and seventh consecutive races Tuesday, beating Emirates Team New Zealand in Races 17 and 18 to even the 34th America's Cup at 8-8 and set up the ultimate showdown for the oldest trophy in international sports.
As stunning as this development has been, Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill knows the job isn't done.
"It's not over -- that's the key point here," Spithill said. "We've got to finish it off."
That opportunity comes Wednesday in a winner-take-all Race 19. Oracle's streak has allowed it to wipe out the two-point penalty it was issued before this regatta for cheating in last year's America's Cup World Series warmup event. Because of that penalty, Oracle needs to win 11 races to defend the Cup.
Even though the scoreboard says 8-8, Oracle actually has a 10-8 advantage over New Zealand on the water. If it hadn't been for the penalty, the Americans would have successfully defended the Cup with Tuesday's first victory in what would have been a conventional best-of-17 event.
As is stands, if New Zealand wins Wednesday, the Kiwis could hoist the Cup after winning a series in which it lost more races than it won.
In Race 18, the Kiwis finally looked as if they could break out of their slump. New Zealand reached Mark 1 first and had a five-second advantage. A poor early jibe by Oracle allowed New Zealand to move ahead by 200 meters.
The lead was seven seconds when the boats split at Gate 2, with New Zealand heading upwind toward Alcatraz to get temporary relief from the flood tide. Oracle went toward the San Francisco waterfront.
Later on Leg 3, as the boats were tacking back and forth across the racecourse, New Zealand made a curious decision. With a cross approaching and with the Kiwis having the right of way because they were on starboard tack, New Zealand didn't cross and instead tacked parallel and squared up with Oracle.
At the moment, Oracle was carrying more speed and zipped past New Zealand and into the lead.
"I'm sure there are things we could have done better," New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said. "We could have tacked just about anywhere, and we would have been behind at the end of that leg."
From there, Oracle was faster going upwind, extending the lead to 57 seconds at Gate 3. The race was over at that point, and Oracle won by 54 seconds.
In Race 17 Oracle won the start after drawing two penalties at the line. The American boat then sprinted to a 17-second advantage at Mark 1, then stretched it to 29 seconds after the downwind Leg 2. New Zealand cut it to 17 seconds on Leg 3. But Oracle maintained that lead at Mark 4 and won by 27 seconds.
By extending its winning streak to seven, Oracle topped the previous record of five, shared by New Zealand (1995, 2000) and Alinghi (2003). Also for the record books, Wednesday will be Day 19 of this America's Cup, shattering the mark of 16 days set in New Zealand in 2003. The 34th America's Cup has run so long it seems as if it should be challenging "Beach Blanket Babylon" for longest running show in San Francisco.
"We want this," Spithill said. "We're going to work very hard, and we'll come out ready to fight."
Contact Darryl Matsuda at 408-920-5215. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DarrylMatsuda.
1:15 p.m. 1 p.m. on KNTV, NBC Sports Network and COZI-TV (Comcast Channel 186 and over the air on Digital Channel 11.2)
Sailing community gets caught up in drama as Oracle mounts
u.s. 8, nEW ZEALAND 8
Series is best-of-17 (or first team to 9 wins), with the deciding race Wednesday. Oracle Team USA was
penalized two points.