Ray Wins In Front Of 35000 Fans
July 15, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
The defending Indy Racing League champion, struggling through a miserable season despite having the fastest car in the series, finally picked up his first victory Saturday night with a dominating performance in the Midas 500 Classic.
Starting from the pole, Ray led 182 of the 208 laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway and beat runner-up Buddy Lazier across the finish line by more than three seconds.
Ray jumped from 19th to 11th in the point standings with two races remaining, not enough time to make up a 70-point deficit on series leader Lazier. So, Team Menard is focused on a different goal.
"I feel very bad for Team Menard that we don't have more wins this year," said Ray, who didn't finish higher than ninth in the first six races. "This is a championship-calibre team. There's two more to go. Maybe we can save face a little bit by winning two more races before the year is up."
Ray gave a glimpse of his dominance in Friday qualifying, needing only one lap in his Dallara Oldsmobile to post a speed of 216.104 mph, nearly 3 mph faster than the second fastest qualifier, Eliseo Salazar.
Once the green flag dropped, Ray showed he was the man to beat on the 1.54-mile quad-oval, quickly pulling away from the rest of the 25-car field.
Even when the Team Menard pit crew had troubles on Ray's first two stops, allowing others to grab the lead, it didn't take long for the 33-year-old Texan to find his way back to the front.
He won with an average speed of 153.403 mph and cruised to a 3.054-second victory over Lazier, who waged a spirited battle for second with Al Unser Jr. They battled wheel-to-wheel after the final caution period ended with nine laps to go.
Ray, meanwhile, pulled away for his fourth career victory, a bit of salve for the driver errors and mechanical problems that plagued him all season. Clearly, he has the fastest car in the IRL, starting from the pole in five races this season and second another time.
After Ray's runaway performance in qualifying, the team went with the same engine and setup in the race.
"We decided to lay all our eggs in one basket and go for it," Ray said. ``We're so far down in the points, we had nothing to lose. That Menard car was a missile today. It was fun to drive.''
Everyone else knew they were racing for second.
"There was no way to catch Greg today. He was super fast," said Unser, who had a brilliant run after failing to post a qualifying time and starting 24th.
Eddie Cheever, leading the season standings when he got to Atlanta, blew an engine on lap 97 and finished a dismal 21st. It was only the second time all year he has been out of the top 10.
Sarah Fisher, the fifth-fastest qualifier, started higher than any other woman in Indy-car history. But the 19-year-old rookie had a problem on her first pit stop, pulling away before her left rear wheel was attached. She slammed the wall on lap 194 after blowing an engine, leaving her in 14th.
Robbie McGehee finished fourth with the only other car on the lead lap.
Prior to qualifying, most drivers predicted a race similar to the June 10 event at Texas Motor Speedway, where there were 31 lead changes among eight drivers before Scott Sharp beat McGehee by 0.059 seconds - the closest finish in IRL history.
The Texas track might look virtually the same as Atlanta, but Ray made a mockery of the competition to become the seventh different winner in seven races this year. He was the first driver to win from the pole since Sam Schmidt in Las Vegas last September.
Taking advantage of Cheever's misfortune, Lazier jumped into the lead in the season standings with 208 points and two races remaining. Cheever, seeking the first championship of his long career, dropped to second with 185.
"Greg Ray had an awful lot tonight, Lazier said. "It was just a matter of defending second place."
Mark Dismore was the only driver other than Ray to lead more than four laps. He was at the front for 16 laps before blowing an engine on 147, spewing oil over much of the track and forcing a 17-lap caution period while workers cleaned the surface.
Sharp, Dismore's teammate and the winner of last year's race at Atlanta, had problems on the very first lap with a faulty gearbox. Sharp got back on the track after his crew put in a new gearbox but finished 16th.
The only wrecks were caused by blown engines. In addition to Fisher, Airton Dare slid through the quad-oval grass after his motor let go on the 14th lap. No other cars were involved in either mishap.
The only injury was suffered by one of Scott Goodyear's crew members, Scott Merryman, who suffered thigh bruises and leg abrasions when he was struck by the Panther Pennzoil car on a routine stop. Merryman initially thought he had a broken leg.
This could be the final IRL race in Atlanta, which is not listed on the 12-race schedule for 2001. After completing a three-year deal with mediocre attendance, track officials haven't decided if they will pursue another race.
The crowd Saturday night was estimated at 35,000 - larger than last year but not as many as the turnout of 42,000 for the inaugural race in 1998.