IRL: Altanta qualifying story

By DAN DAKIN Atlanta - The Pennzoil Panther crew may be the IRL team to beat on race day, but when it comes to qualifying, there's been no getting past the mighty Menard. Greg Ray continued his near-dominance in qualifying by winning the pole...

By DAN DAKIN

Atlanta - The Pennzoil Panther crew may be the IRL team to beat on race day, but when it comes to qualifying, there's been no getting past the mighty Menard.

Greg Ray continued his near-dominance in qualifying by winning the pole for Saturday night's zMAX 500 Indy Racing Northern Lights Series event at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The Plano, Texas native has qualified no worse than second in the first three races of the season, including a pole at Phoenix and a second at Homestead three weeks ago. Under the lights Friday, Ray bolted around the 1.5-mile Atlanta oval in 24.7406 seconds at 218.265 mph to earn the MBNA Pole Award, which comes with a $10,000 prize.

"I'm very happy. The team did a great job setting up the car today. Everyone is working together well and running on all cylinders. Now we have to execute tomorrow night," said Ray.

Execution on race day, or race night as the case may be in Atlanta, has been a major problem for him so far in the season.

Despite his front row starts in both races thus far, the 1999 IRL Champion finds himself way back in 23rd place in the standings. That's thanks to a pair of DNFs including an accident in Phoenix and a blown engine in Homestead.

"This is a little bit different race than Miami or Phoenix. If we don't make any mistakes or something doesn't jump up and bite us, we should have a great race. The air density will play a big part in what happens tomorrow, but overall it's a roll of the dice," said Ray.

Much has been made about the air pressure and density during the race because much of the event will be run under the lights Saturday with the green flag dropping at 7 p.m.

Joining Ray in the front row will be Heritage Motorsports driver Jeff Ward, who collected the $10,000 check in Miami for winning the pole there.

He said his first goal this weekend has been met.

"Greg (Ray) is a really tough competitor at these mile-and-a-half tracks. I wasn't trying to beat him for the pole, I was just trying to make it to the front row again," said Ward.

"We'd really like to get a win here. It would be a great momentum builder going into Indy. If it comes down to the last pit stop and Greg is out front, we're going to have a hard time catching him. Same thing goes if we're out front, he's going to have a hard time catching us. We'll have to see what happens," he said.

Behind Ray and Ward in the second row will be Eddie Cheever Jr. and Mark Dismore while Shigeaki Hattori starts fifth.

The Top-5 run for Hattori, at 213.87 mph, is by far the Japanese driver's best ever after he qualified 24th for Phoenix and 21st for Miami and no better than 17th in his five starts in 2000.

"I'm very happy because we had a problem with the engine. We changed the engine. It was a lot smoother. The new chassis feels much better. We feel great," he said.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Greg Ray , Eddie Cheever , Shigeaki Hattori , Jeff Ward