Texas No Turnaround For Ray
June 15, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
He finished 15th Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway not far from his Plano house, the latest disappointment in a dreary season.
When he raced at the track last year he was 20th in the IRL standings, but a runner-up finish catapulted him to eighth.
He then won three of four races and returned to his "home track" four months later to clinch the points title with a third-place finish in the season finale.
Ray is now 18th in points with just four races left, including Sunday in Fountain, Colo. He had hoped to do better in the rain-delayed Casino Magic 500 last Sunday, but wound up losing another spot in the standings.
Like his season, his car stalled on pit road, and it's beginning to look as if he won't get back in the title race.
"Our season last year and this year is full of extremes," Ray said. "We had extreme lows last year, and we also had extreme highs. We've already experienced all of our extreme lows this year, and I'm ready to get on to the extreme highs."
The last two races provide an indication of how this season is so drastically different than last, and how his luck doesn't seem to be getting any better.
After winning the pole for the Indianapolis 500, Ray wrecked twice and finished last in the 33-car field.
Ray had the second-best qualifying time for the Casino Magic 500 when rain prevented 10 drivers from making their runs. When season points were used to set the starting grid, he slid back to 17th.
Gone were his streaks of five straight front-row positions and 15 consecutive starts in the top five.
When Ray finally worked his way into the top 10, his engine stalled twice, costing him any chance of winning the race. It also was the first event this season in which he had not led.
"We've already paid our dues and now we need to come on strong," Ray said.
Several factors, not just bad luck, seem to have contributed to Ray's struggles this season.
His crew chief from the championship season, John O'Gara, and two crew members were fired.
Add to that gearbox failures in two races and the crashes at Indy and Phoenix that obviously upset car owner John Menard. He cited Ray's failure to master a new shifting technique as part of the problem.
Ray, who claims the new gearboxes are fragile, understands the frustration of the car owner. He feels the same way.
"I don't want this to be an issue," he said. "My relationship with John Menard has absolutely no problem."
This week's IRL race is at Pikes Peak International Raceway, where Ray won twice during his impressive second-half run in 1999. For the 33-year-old driver, there can be no more bad races.
Any reasonable chance to repeat as champion would have to include a four-race sweep. He has just 70 points, 94 fewer than leader Buddy Lazier.
"Can I win the championship? Mathematically, it's possible and it's a goal," Ray said. "But you have to focus not so far out. We have to focus on each and every race."
But unless he sweeps the next three, his return to Texas on Oct. 15 for the season-ending Mall.com 500 won't be much of a homecoming.