SPARTA, Ky., Thursday, July 20, 2000 -- A fast and aggressive basketball team can smother an opponent with its defense and win easily. Greg Ray used the Indy Racing Northern Light Series version of an aggressive defense in his convincing win...
SPARTA, Ky., Thursday, July 20, 2000 -- A fast and aggressive basketball team can smother an opponent with its defense and win easily. Greg Ray used the Indy Racing Northern Light Series version of an aggressive defense in his convincing win July 15 in the Midas 500 Classic at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"I started the weekend with a full-court-press attitude, and it worked very well," said Ray, who led 182 of the 208 laps in his Conseco/Quaker State/Menards Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone.
The Indy Racing Northern Light Series now heads to an area known for good basketball, when the new Kentucky Speedway plays host to The Belterra Resort Indy 300 on Aug. 27.
On July 18, Ray and Team Menard conducted private testing at Kentucky Speedway along with Kelley Racing, Panther Racing and Treadway Racing in preparation for the inaugural Northern Light Series event in the Bluegrass State. Last November, Ray was the first to test at the new facility while it was still under heavy construction.
"It was about 45 degrees that day, there were bulldozers on the inside and bulldozers on the outside and some dust and dirt on the track," Ray said. The track has since been completed, the bulldozers hauled away, and the dirt and dust long since blown away. Kentucky Speedway is ready for the excitement of wheel-to-wheel racing at more than 210 mph.
"It's a first-class facility all the way," Ray said. "The track is very wide, very smooth, and it has a speed rhythm to it. It's going to be a very racy place."
While Kentucky is a 1.5-mile oval like Atlanta, Las Vegas and Texas, the new track has unique characteristics.
"When you come off of Turn 4, the banking really holds you," Ray said. "It's very, very wide there. It's going to make for some incredible passing because it is so wide. It wouldn't surprise me a bit to see a last-lap, last-corner pass for the lead."
Ray had no need for a last-lap pass to win at Atlanta, delivering Team Menard's first-ever victory on a 1.5-mile oval by 3.054 seconds. It was Ray' s third career victory from the pole, a series record.
But the rest of the season hasn't been easy for Ray, the defending Northern Light Series champion. Despite starting from the pole five times, his previous-best finish this year was ninth in the Vegas Indy 300 in April at Las Vegas.
After finishing last in the Indianapolis 500 after earning the PPG Pole, Ray experienced engine failure six laps from the end of the Casino Magic 500 at Texas to finish 15th. Then an accident in the Radisson Indy 200 at Pikes Peak dropped him to 20th. He left Colorado in June with a damaged car and in 19th place in the Northern Light Cup point standings. But a new approach helped Ray win at Atlanta and leap to 11th in the standings.
"After Pikes Peak I took a big step backward," Ray said. "I wasn't being aggressive enough in some areas, and I was being too aggressive in other areas, and I was trying to make things happen where maybe I shouldn't have." Team Menard, which has won two championships in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series, last year with Ray and in 1996-97 with Tony Stewart, stayed together like a championship team during the adversity by never hitting the panic button.
"I never really had any self doubt in myself or the team," Ray said. "A lot of things are circumstantial. People make mistakes, certainly I've made my share of those. I knew it was always within our abilities." Like a basketball team working on the fundamentals, Team Menard went back to the basics.
"We went back to details, working on the small things and stopped worrying about the big things," said Ray. "The big things take care of themselves." While the first six races of 2000 were not kind to Ray, he is confident that he and Team Menard can finish the season with flair.
"Maybe we can save face by winning two more races to end the year," Ray said.
Don't doubt his ability to win two straight. Ray was the last Northern Light Series driver to win back-to-back races, at Dover and Pikes Peak in August 1999.
But Ray knows the parity of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series is going to make winning at Kentucky tough.
"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 cars. If you miss a little, you're not going to be on pace. It's one of those things that, 'What comes around, goes around.'"
If Ray's car goes around Kentucky Speedway as fast as it did at Atlanta, he could very well be the first two-time winner in 2000 and tie Scott Sharp for the most career wins in the Northern Light Series with five.
Most importantly though, he would send a message that he and Team Menard can still apply the full-court press.