Ray Out Front In Atlanta Practice

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    HAMPTON, Ga. -- Perennial frontrunner Greg Ray showed the way in practice Thursday for Saturday night's Midas 500 Classic at Atlanta Motor Speedway by turning the day's fastest lap of 213.616 mph.

    But Frenchman Stephan Gregoire emerged as one of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series’ MBNA Pole contenders during qualifications Friday when he ended the two-session practice period by recording laps of 212.022 mph and 212.573 mph just before the track closed for the night at 10 p.m.

    For Gregoire, driver of a G Force-Oldsmobile, it would be a special occasion for him if he should win the pole because it would happen on Bastille Day, France’s version of July 4th.

    But there’s also another surprising pole contender.

    Rookie Sarah Fisher, still three months shy of her 20th birthday, turned in laps of 212.064 mph in the 90-degree heat of the afternoon and 211.981 mph under an almost-full Georgia moon while driving the Walker Racing Dallara-Oldsmobile.

    Ray, meanwhile, spent the night session working on race setups in his Dallara-Oldsmobile. Ray, defending IRNLS champion, has had his problems in race conditions; qualifying usually goes well for him.

    Still, his best lap in a race setup during the evening practice was 211.906 mph.

    "We actually ran quicker in the primary car, and close to the same speed as everybody else in the T car," Ray said. "I think we just completed 67 laps, so we were working on race setup stuff. And we're still really only a couple ticks off Gregoire. I don't know whether he was trying to go fast or not. We're just focusing on our deal.

    "I'm not concerned with what everybody else is doing. We're just trying to stay focused this weekend. We're working on all the details and trying to execute some of the small things we haven't really focused on in the past this year.

    "We're hungry."

    After winning three races last year, Ray has no finish better than ninth this season. He has completed only 852 of 1,207 laps and is 19th in the Northern Light Cup standings with 93 points.

    Gregoire is another who hopes to put some life into his season this weekend. He is 15th in the standings with 105 points with a best finish of eighth. His best start has been seventh.

    "The team did a great job, and it was easy to go fast," Gregoire said. "My car just got faster and faster. I didn't do anything more than drive it. We were still using my Pikes Peak motor for this session with 200 laps of racing on it. The setup we have now on my primary car is almost perfect."

    Fisher will try Friday to become the highest-qualifying woman driver in Indy Racing history. Lyn St. James qualified sixth for the Indianapolis 500 in 1994. This only will be the seventh race of Fisher's career. Her best start has been 12th.

    "I think it's real neat to come to a new track and never having tested here or ran here before, and to have run so well right out of the box," Fisher said.

    Slightly behind the top three was Donnie Beechler, who ran a fast lap of 211.973 mph in his Cahill Racing Dallara-Oldsmobile. Rookie Jeret Schroeder, driving the Tri Star Motorsports car co-owned by NASCAR Winston Cup star Tony Stewart, was fifth quickest at 211.889.

    Rounding out the top 10 were: Jimmy Kite, 211.823; Davey Hamilton, 211.748; Buddy Lazier, 211.682; Mark Dismore, 211.599, and Eliseo Salazar, 211.334.

    Twenty-four times were turned in the 25-second bracket, ranging from Ray's 25.279 to Billy Boat's 25.930.
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