Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway
Date: Saturday, July 15, 2000
Start time: 8:08 PM EDT
Weather: Extremely hot, dusty
IRL historical: #7 of 9 in 2000 season, IRL race #41 overall
Track historical: IRL race #3, Indy car race #12 at this track
Track configuration: 1.544-mile, quad-oval, high banked
Wing package: speedway
The third Atlanta IRNLS race began with trepidation over the track's future with the series (it not being on the 2001 schedule announced in June). When the teams and fans arrived for the weekend, they added to that concern over the weather; the mid-June date found central Georgia in a severe heat wave and drought, and high heat and blowing dust was to play a major role in the event. Fortunately, it turned out to be a great night for the IRNLS and racing fans in general, with a very clean race having few caution laps. It wasn't such a good night for people who don't like heat, for engine builders, or for drivers not named Greg Ray.
Practice results were interesting as some unexpected names were near the top of the speed charts, including Davey Hamilton (whose team had been doing poorly) and rookie Sarah Fisher. The usual suspect rose to the top of the pile in qualifying as Greg Ray covered the field by 3 MPH, but some unusual names earned the other qualifying bonus points as Eliseo Salazar shared the front row with Ray, and Donnie Beechler gridded up third, career bests for both drivers. Al Unser was starting way back due to electrical problems in qualifying, as was J. J. Yeley, making his first start for the Byrd-McCormack team, two years after his most recent IRNLS start. Another driver returning after a long absence was Stevie Reeves, taking over the ride for Logan Racing.
Race day was extremely hot, with temperatures in downtown Atlanta topping 100 deg F, and it was still 94 degrees at race time even with the sun setting. A strong wind had blown all afternoon, and combined with the drought conditions, this had deposited a huge amount of dust and grit on the track. This was a concern when the grid rolled off (almost minus Robbie Buhl, who took several minutes to get his car started). At the drop of the green flag, Ray announced his intentions by driving away immediately. After their good qualifying effort, the Menard team had taken a huge gamble and left their qualifying engine in the car for the race, although it was meant to run only a few laps and had overheated during their qualifying effort. Beechler soon got around Salazar for second, as Scott Sharp experienced gearbox problems almost immediately and had to pit on lap 4. With Ray driving away, a draft started to form up behind led by Beechler, Salazar, surprising Jaret Schroeder (whose team had been unsuccessful in getting permisssion from the IRNLS to run with sidepods containing a lighted sponsor logo), Buhl, Jeff Ward (one of the fastest cars in practice), Buddy Lazier, and rookie Airton Dare.
With no one able to keep up, Ray had a three-second lead over Beechler by lap 10, but this evaporated with an incident on lap 13 that was to set the tone for the night. As he exited turn 4, Dare showed a puff of smoke and slowed abruptly. As traffic darted by, a heartbeat later Dare's engine erupted and he went on a wild ride, spinning through the quad-oval grass and winding up at the bottom of the track at the end of the front stretch. He did a fine job of wrestling the out-of-control car and avoided any contact, but the first fast engine of the night had come to an ignoble end, and it wouldn't be the last. No leaders pitted during the resulting caution and the running order stood at Ray, Beechler, Schroeder, Buhl, and Salazar (slipping back and complaining of lack of power), with Lazier, Mark Dismore (moving up rapidly after a poor start), Eddie Cheever, Ward, and Tyce Carlson filling out the top-10. Green flew on lap 20 and Ray took up where he started, as Al Unser, working his way up, found himself in 12th. Unser cracked the top-10 on lap 28 as Yeley, who had made an extended pit stop due to electrical problems, returned to the track.
As Ray drove away, the slicing-and-dicing that everyone though might occur, based on the experience at Texas the previous month, began to form up. Beechler and Schroeder had been able to drive away from the big pack, but Buhl was just barely holding off Lazier and Salazar who were side by side for fifth, and right behind them Cheever and Dismore went wheel to wheel for seventh. This gathered up the cars behind and at one point positions all the way back to 17th were in this pack. But the next engine anvil fell on a leader on lap 38 when Schroeder slowed on the back stretch and headed to the pits. Two laps later, a yellow flew for the stalled car of Scott Harrington (taking over the seat at the Mid-American team from co-owner Doug Didero) in turn 1. Harrington had just made a long pit stop during which they had had a fuel fire, and the team's fuel man David Syrell had to go to the infield hospital with (fortunately minor) burns. Then, to add insult to injury, as Harrington pulled out, his engine quit and precipitated the caution. Meanwhile, Tristar owner Larry Curry confirmed that Schroeder had indeed suffered an engine failure; at first they had thought it to be only a cracked exhaust header.
All of the lead-lap cars pitted and the stops jumbled the running order. Ray had a slow stop and dropped back to 9th; the crowd cheered as Beechler had a fast stop and emerged with the lead, followed by Dismore, Unser, Cheever, and Lazier. (What they didn't realize was that due to an air gun jam Beecher had had only a three-tire stop; they had sent him back out without changing the right rear.) Others having bad stops were Buhl, who dropped out of the top-10, and Fisher, whose crew mistakenly signaled her to leave too early. The left rear wheel wasn't attached and as she pulled out it came off. They had to get a hand jack to drag the car back to the pit, losing two laps.
Beechler's time up front didn't last long as he was passed on the restart on lap 45 by Dismore. The non-change of the right rear had an effect on Beechler's handling and he began to slip back. Meanwhile, it took Ray all of six laps to move up right behind Dismore, passing on the outside with ease (he commented later about why more drivers weren't trying the middle groove in the corners; nearly everyone else except Beechler and Ward was running down on the white line). On lap 53 he passed Dismore for the lead, and Lazier took advantage of the opening to slip through for second. For the first and only time during the race, Ray wasn't able to entirely shake the draft; Lazier stuck with him as the two drove away from Dismore and the pack. Dismore was soon under attack from Robby McGehee (who had gained positions during the pit stops) and Cheever, and as this trio swapped third back and forth, others gained on them including Buhl, Unser, Buzz Calkins, and the Foyt cars.
Just as Calkins was moving up, though, his engine let go on the front stretch on lap 69. It was a spectacular failure with a huge cloud of smoke that covered the grandstands and left spectators coughing and rubbing their eyes. Calkins kept control and didn't spin, but he was done for the night, his first engine DNF in two years. Once the fans could see again, they observed all of the lead-lap cars pitting except, curiously, Carlson (who had been running in the top-10), and Gregoire. Carlson led briefly but dropped back to 16th when he and Gregoire pitted two laps later. (Carlson's crew later reported that they had intended to play some strategy and leave him out, but changed their minds when all of the other leaders pitted.) Ray once again had a mediocre pit stop and when Carlson pitted Dismore picked up the lead, with McGehee, Cheever, Lazier, and Unser in tow; Ray was 7th. When the green flew on lap 75, Cheever got a better start and picked up the lead the next lap, only to lose it back to Dismore the following lap. On lap 79 Ray had worked his way back up; he took the lead and was off and away. By lap 85 he had a 2-1/2 second lead. But meanwhile some tight racing was occurring behind him. Lazier, Cheever, Dismore, and McGehee engaged in a four-way duel for 2nd, with the position being traded almost every lap.
The next shoe fell when Cheever slowed on the front stretch with a puff of smoke on lap 97. He drove up against the wall in turns 1-2, trying to stay out of the way, and there were a few anxious moments as faster cars had to work inside of him on the back stretch. But he eventually managed to get the car down to the apron, and there was no caution. Cheever was soon replaced in the second-place fight by Beechler, working his way back up; Beechler's car got stronger on longer runs and the pace of the middle portion of the race was to work out to his advantage. Meanwhile Unser was sliding back with poor handling. By lap 100 Ray was beginning to lap fast cars; Gregoire, Hamilton, and Carlson all went down a lap as Ray built up an eventual half-lap lead on second place before slacking his pace somewhat as he worked traffic. Green-flag pit stops beginning with hometown favorite Jimmy Kite's on lap 117 would spread out the field further. Ray had a good stop this time while several other contenders had slow stops; Beechler had a very slow stop and lost a lap, which he would not regain. Scott Goodyear had a good stop and moved into the top-10, although a lap behind. Jeff Ward had run as high as fifth in the middle part of the race, but on lap 124 as he pulled onto pit lane for his stop, his gearbox skipped a gear and over-revved his engine; the engine lasted only four more laps before failing on lap 128, putting yet another contender out with engine problems.
A caution for debris on lap 137 might have been the only thing that prevented Ray from lapping the field. As it was Ray had lapped his way through sixth place and now only he, Dismore, Lazier, Unser, and McGehee were on the lead lap. Dismore was valiantly holding off an almost constant attack from Lazier and Unser, but on lap 147 his engine exploded going into turn 1. Dismore kept control and there was no fire, but a smoke cloud rendered turn 1 almost impassible for a few moments, and more seriously, a huge trail of oil and water was left all through the low groove in turns 1 and 2. This would require many laps to clean up. With attrition so high, cars that had lost laps suddenly found themselves in contention for a top-5 finish again, including Beechler, Buhl, Kite, Gregoire, and Hamilton. The green finally flew on lap 165 with only Ray, Lazier, Unser, and McGehee on the lead lap; Beechler led the one-lap-down cars in fifth, followed by Buhl, Billy Boat, Gregoire, Hamilton, Salazar, and Kite. Hamilton's challenge didn't last long as on the next lap he came down the front stretch trailing smoke. It looked like another engine failure; it turned out not to be (a cam cap had fallen off, creating an oil leak), but the repair time took him out of contention.
Ray once again drove away as Lazier and Unser locked up in a duel for second. Lap after lap, the two went wheel to wheel with Lazier on the inside, Unser on the outside, and neither able to gain an advantage. McGehee trailed, watching and trying to stay out of the way of the lapped cars that were fighting for 5th on back. A few cars weren't sure that they had fuel to go the distance and made precautionary stops. This proved disasterous for Goodyear: on his final stop his car slid a bit in the pit box and knocked down left front tire changer Scott Merryman. The result was a long stop while the team saw to Merryman and got another crew member to change the left front; it cost Goodyear two laps and a good finish. (Merryman was later released from the infield hospital with minor injuries.) Salazar also pitted for fuel and he too had a slow stop which dropped him out of the contest for fifth. On lap 194, Fisher suffered a seized engine in turn 4; she spun and hit the wall with the left side, then spun into the infield on the front stretch. No other cars were involved and Fisher walked away. When the green flew on lap 200, Kite (who was running well in 7th) had his engine blow on the back stretch; the luckless Georgian got it down to the apron and there was no caution. The end was anticlimatic as far as the lead went with Ray driving away, but Lazier and Unser never did get separated. Lazier managed to get in front on lap 205, and Unser tried valiantly to get back up alongside. He pulled up to the outside as the two came down to the checkered flag, but too late; Laizer took 2nd by about 2/3 of a car length as Ray won by three seconds; giving the fabled Team Menard its first IRNLS superspeedway victory.
For the third time, Ray won from the pole and led the most laps, only the fifth time in IRNLS history that had occurred (Arie Luyendyk and Tony Stewart had done it previously). Greg led over 85% of the race, third-best in IRNLS history, and pulled himself back into position to defend his championship. However, Buddy Lazier's second place finish (his third 2nd-place of the year) put him in control of that championship. Donnie Beechler won the contest among the one-lap-down cars for 5th, his third top-5 finish of the year. Scott Harrington was much less fortunate; he joined his crew member Syrell in the burn ward when his engine blew and hot water invaded his cockpit. Jimmy Kite was unlucky too; his blown engine only eight laps from the end deprived him of an almost certain 6th-place finish, which would have equalled his career best.
Fin St Qual Car C/E/T Driver Entrant Laps Status Laps Pts Spd # Led 1 1 216.104 1 D/A/F Greg Ray Menard 208 Running 182 55 2 11 210.699 91 D/A/F Buddy Lazier Hemelgarn 208 Running 2 40 3 24 No Spd. 3 G/A/F Al Unser Galles 208 Running 35 4 12 210.600 5 G/A/F Robby McGehee Treadway 208 Running 1 32 5 3 212.850 98 D/A/F Donnie Beechler Cahill 207 Running 4 31 6 8 211.491 24 G/I/F Robbie Buhl D&R 207 Running 28 7 20 206.115 7 G/A/F Stephan Gregoire Simon 207 Running 26 8 19 208.792 81 D/A/F Billy Boat Pelfrey 207 Running 24 9 18 208.922 55 G/A/F Shigeaki Hattori Treadway 206 Running 22 10 2 213.194 11 G/A/F Eliseo Salazar Foyt 205 Running 22 11 16 209.310 4 D/A/F Scott Goodyear Panther 205 Running 19 12 25 No Spd. 27 G/A/F Jimmy Kite Blueprint 199 Engine 18 13 15 209.335 20 D/A/F Tyce Carlson Hubb-Immke 196 Running 2 17 14 5 211.839 15 D/A/F Sarah Fisher Walker 190 Crash T4 16 15 17 209.173 16 G/A/F Davey Hamilton Xtreme 184 Running 15 16 13 210.387 8 D/A/F Scott Sharp Kelley 179 Oil Pres. 14 17 23 200.141 30 G/A/F J. J. Yeley Byrd-McCor 177 Running 13 18 7 211.499 28 D/A/F Mark Dismore Kelley 146 Engine 16 12 19 4 212.448 14 G/A/F Jeff Ward Foyt 123 Engine 11 20 21 205.456 43 D/A/F Scott Harrington MidAmerica 120 Engine 10 21 14 209.709 51 D/I/F Eddie Cheever Cheever 96 Engine 1 9 22 22 201.982 19 D/A/F Stevie Reeves Logan 89 Engine 8 23 9 211.483 12 D/A/F Buzz Calkins Bradley 68 Engine 7 24 6 211.698 6 D/A/F Jaret Schroeder Tristar 37 Engine 6 25 10 211.127 88 G/A/F Airton Dare Xtreme 13 Engine 5
Laps under green: 167 of 208 laps (80.3%)
Caution flags: 6 for 41 laps (19.7%)
#1: lap 14, blown engine/spin (Dare), FS, 5 laps
#2: lap 40, stalled car (Harrington), T1, 4 laps
#3: lap 69, blown engine (Calkins), FS, 5 laps
#4: lap 138, debris, T3, 5 laps
#5: lap 147, blown engine (Dismore), T1, 17 laps
#6: lap 198, blown engine/crash (Fisher), T4, 5 laps
Red flags: 0 for 0 minutes
Lead changes: 13, number of race leaders: 7
St: Ray 1-40
#1: Beechler 41-44
#2: Dismore 45-52
#3: Ray 53-69
#4: Carlson 70-71
#5: Dismore 72-74
#6: Cheever 75
#7: Dismore 76-78
#8: Ray 79-122
#9: Dismore 123-124
#10: Ray 125-156
#11: B. Lazier 157-158
#12: McGehee 159
#13: Ray 160-208
C/E/T finish averages (# started / avg finish):
Dallara: 14 / 14.1
G-Force: 11 / 11.5
Aurora: 23 / 13.0
Infiniti: 2 / 13.5
Firestone: 25 / 13.0