Ray sets pace on final practice day

Seven days, seven drivers. That has been the story of practice for the 84th Indianapolis 500 as seven different drivers have led seven different days of practice leading up to Saturday's qualifications for the Indy 500 pole.

Ray sets pace on final practice day

Greg Ray of Team Menard was the fastest driver in practice in five of the seven practice days in 1999. He did not become the fastest driver at Indy until Friday's practice session, when he claimed the top spot on the speed charts with 42 minutes left in the session.

The Team Menard driver whipped off a lap at 223.948 miles per hour in a Dallara/Oldsmobile Aurora. That knocked Jeff Ward and Scott Sharp off the off the top of the scoring pylon after both drivers ran identical laps of 222.949 mph earlier in the day.

Ward drives for team owner A.J. Foyt and Sharp races for Kelley Racing. Another Foyt driver, Eliseo Salazar, was fourth at 222.921 mph and Robby Gordon was at 221.901 mph. Gordon is Ray's teammate at Team Menard.

By getting the fast lap on the final full day of practice, it has boosted Ray's confidence that he can win the pole for the biggest race in the world.

''It's going to make me sleep a hell of a lot better tonight,' Ray said. 'I know we've always been capable of standing on the gas, we just didn't have the right set-up. The last part of the day, we got the car ready for the conditions and that has certainly give me a lot of confidence.'

Ray is part of a potent two-car team at Team Menard, which features NASCAR Winston Cup driver Robby Gordon. With both drivers leading a day of practice throughout the week, it has given the team confidence of winning the $150,000 PPG Pole for the Indianapolis 500.

'I think there were a couple times this week we could have posted the fast time,' Ray said. 'We've been out of sync somehow. We would get a good lap going and then we would hit a yellow. Finally, we got a little bit of open track space.'

This is the first time since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway kept record on practice days in 1971 that seven different drivers have led seven different days. Al Unser Jr. was the fastest on opening day, last Saturday. On Sunday, it was Eddie Cheever with Robby Gordon the fast man on Monday. Tuesday was Scott Sharp's turn, Juan Montoya was the fast boy on Wednesday and his CART team-mate Jimmy Vasser on Thursday.

'Between the teams and the drivers, it's going to be bloody competitive, not only to post the quickest lap but the best four-lap average,' Ray said. 'You may see someone post the fastest one-lap but not the four-lap average. It's going to be bloody competitive tomorrow.

'It's about the moment - getting the right setup at the right moment with the right weather. If you nail it, you can get the pole. If you miss it, you might not be second, you might be 20th. It's going to be very tight. It's always been competitive up front, but this year it's going to be tight, tight, tight.'

Unlike past years when it was easy to pick a pole favourite, this year a number of drivers have a legitimate shot at the pole. It is simply too close to call.

'Qualifying is absolutely no certain thing,' said team owner Tom Kelley, who owns the race team that features Scott Sharp and Mark Dismore as the drivers.

'I don't care where you go or what you do, instead of a one-lap flier, you have to put on a four-lap flier. To go fast, the car has to be on the edge. I feel good about our chances. The main thing here is everybody wants to win the pole, but I want to get them in position to win the race. The main idea about starting up front is it gives them a better shot at getting through any melees at the start of the race.'

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