HAMPTON, GA. Greg Ray always had the fastest car in the Indy Racing League. He finally drove a winner Saturday night.
The defending IRL champion blew away the field and made a mockery of those who predicted a close race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, cruising to his first victory of the year in the Midas 500 Classic.
Ray gave a glimpse of his dominance in Friday qualifying, needing only one lap in his Dallara Oldsmobile to post a speed of 215.104 mph, nearly 3 mph faster than the second-fastest qualifier, Eliseo Salazar.
Once the green flag dropped, Ray quickly showed he was the man to beat on the 1.54-mile quad-oval, pulling away from the rest of the 25-car field. He led 182 of the 208 laps and won with an average speed of 153.403 mph.
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 its way back to the front.
Ray cruised to a 3.054-second victory over Buddy 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, finally making his way to the winner's circle after a horrendous season. Last year's series champion had started from the pole in four of the first six races, but driver errors and mechanical problems caused him to finish no higher than ninth.
After his dominating performance in qualifying, Team Menard decided to leave the same engine in the car for the race.
"We decided to lay all our eggs in one basket and go for it," said Ray, who came to Atlanta ranking 19th in the season standings. "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.
Series points leader Eddie Cheever, who led a lap, 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 in 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 there was no duel at the checkered flag. Ray became the seventh different winner in seven races this year, and 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 but blew an engine on lap 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 he 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, who appeared to suffer a broken leg when he was struck by the Panther Pennzoil car on a routine stop.
This could be the final IRL race in Atlanta, which is not listed on the 12-race schedule for 2001.