Ray takes victors spoils in Atlanta

Greg Ray, the defending Indy Racing Northern Light Series champion, started the weekend in a lowly 19th place in the championship standings, but jumped an impressive eight places to 11th, after dominating the Midas 500 Classic at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Saturday night

Ray takes victors spoils in Atlanta

Ray started from pole position and led 182 of 208 laps en route to his fourth career IRL win and the first win by a pole-sitter in the IRL this season. In front of an estimated crowd of 35,000, Ray finished 3.05 seconds ahead of Buddy Lazier as the Dallara-Oldsmobile combination monopolised the top two positions. Al Unser Jr was third, followed by Robby McGehee and Donnie Beechler, all in G-Force-Oldsmobiles.

"It was fun," Ray said. "I had a great car. It was fun to drive. The problem out there tonight was with running multiple lines. In Texas, we were quick on the draft. Here, we tried to run too wide. Our focus tonight was to be quick on the restart. The car was superb, and I only wish I could have a car as good as this every race. We need to focus on details and execution.

"It's very satisfying. My expectations of myself are to go out there and do my best. The object of any game is to go out there and win. Based on past success, we may have put the car in front of the horse too many times. But now, we went back to the basics. This was a total team effort. It didn't come down to any one thing. Everyone did their job perfectly. So things went well tonight."

After a spectacular race at Texas Motor Speedway, it was expected that the 1.5 mile Atlanta track would provide a stage for a similarly exciting event. Ray took the lead at the green flag and stretched his lead until the first caution flag came out after Airton Dare spun on lap 14. Dare's engine blew up and he slid across the grass but avoided any contact.

While Ray sped away from the field, defending champion Scott Sharp suffered gearbox problems on the first lap and had to pull into the pits for repairs. The race went green again on lap 19 and Ray continue his fierce pace at the head of the field. He was followed by Beechler, Jeret Schroeder, Robbie Buhl and Eliseo Salazar.

Unser - who was forced to start in 24th after a blown engine had ruined his Friday quaifying - moved up 12 spots in the first 20 laps. Scott Harrington's stalled car brought out another caution on lap 39 with Ray still in the lead. But, when the leaders pitted, Beechler was the first car out and Ray dropped to sixth.

The green flag waved on lap 45 with Beechler in front but Mark Dismore had caught the leader by the end of the lap. On lap 52, Ray and Dismore duelled for the top spot side-by-side until Ray was able to take the lead in the third turn.

Buzz Calkins' engine blew up on lap 69 for another caution and the green flag waved again on lap 74 with Dismore in front. Eddie Cheever, who came in as the IRL points leader, took the lead at the completion of that lap and stayed in front until Ray regained the top spot on lap 79.

There was a 12-car draft at the front of the field with side-by-side racing six rows deep. Ray was able to pull ahead of that group and began to open a sizeable lead. Cheever's engine blew up on lap 96, sending him into the garage and out of the race.

At the halfway point Ray was in command. The leaders began a round of green flag pit-stops on lap 123 and by the time all cars had pitted, Ray was back in front on lap 125. Another caution waved on lap 139 and the field bunched up for a restart on lap 144, with Ray once again in front.

Dismore's engine erupted in a huge plume of smoke on lap 147 to bring out yet another caution. The race restarted on lap 165, after marshalls had cleared the large amounts of oil from the track.

With Ray opening another big lead, his pursuers continued to battle for position. Lazier pulled alongside Unser on lap 176 and the duo ran side-by-side for one lap until Lazier made the pass for second at the start-finish line. Unser continued the challenge and pulled alongside Lazier on lap 180 but could not overtake the 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner.

Drama struck on lap 189 as Scott Goodyear pulled into the pits and hit crew member Scott Merryman, flipping him into the air. Safety workers tended to Merryman, who only suffered leg injuries.

On lap 194, Sarah Fisher spun into the wall for the only crash of the race. The ensuing caution closed the gap between Ray and Lazier as the field slowed behind the pace car. During the caution, Harrington pulled off the track, suffering from heat exhaustion in the cockpit. The green flag was then waved with eight laps to go and Ray pulled away.

"The last 30 laps seemed like it took a year to finish," Ray said. "The difference between Pikes Peak and here, where maybe I faltered earlier and let Mark Dismore come sweeping across my bow, was that I let the other drivers know that I wasn't going to let up tonight.

"That's the difference between being a hero and zero. Some guy sinks a three-point and he's a hero, while another guy shoots an air ball, and he's considered a loser. We had some calculated risks tonight. We certainly had some early problems in the pits, but we recovered well. It was the outstanding preparation and attitude of all our crew that led to our success tonight."

Ray's victory continued a streak in the IRL this season of a different winner in every race. Seven races have produced seven different winners.

"There is not a two-time winner yet this season," Ray said. "On any given night, it could be anyone because of the equipment and the cars. If you miss a little, you're not going to be on pace."

In finishing second, Lazier is now the IRL points leader. He has a 23-point advantage over Cheever, who entered the race as championship leader. Scott Goodyear lies third on 175 points. Scott Sharp and Eliseo Salazar are tied with 173 points each.

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