Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway
Date: Saturday, April 28, 2001
Start time: 7:44 PM EDT
Weather: Moderately cool and damp
IRL historical: #3 of 13 in 2000 season, IRL race #46 overall
Track historical: IRL race #4, Indy car race #13 at this track
Track configuration: 1.544-mile, quad-oval, high banked
Wing package: speedway
The 2001 edition of the IRNLS in Atlanta proved to be an exercise in preparation and coolness: the race would be determined by the team that made the fewest mistakes and encounterd the fewest problems. With the race date moved to April, cooler temperatures led to increased speeds. Results in practice were mixed, but qualifying was a familiar story: Greg Ray with his powerful Menard-built Aurora engine qualified with better than a 2 MPH margin over his closest competitor, and that was Jeff Ward also armed with an engine from Menard.
Saturday night, the start of the race was delayed by a spot shower that fell on the track just prior to race time. When things finally rolled off, Ward got the jump and led the first two laps, but then Ray asserted himself and took the lead on lap 3. What the rest of the field didn't realize was that they would collectively lead only six more laps in this race. What they also didn't realize was that almost half of them would be in the garage in small pieces less than a third of the way through the race. Problems began right away when Brandon Erwin spun and contacted the wall in turn 3; he wasn't hurt but the car was and his night ended early. After a quick cleanup the green flew and Ray took up where he left off, driving away from everyone except Ward, Mark Dismore, Sam Hornish, and Eddie Cheever. One of the challengers went down quickly when Dismore retired on lap 15 with engine failure. Meanwhile, some other names were picking their way through. The Galles team looked strong for the first time in a while; Al Unser cracked the top-10 by lap 30, and his teammates Didier Andre and Casey Mears were also moving up. Also moving up were Davey Hamilton and Billy Boat, and Eliseo Salazar held on to fourth.
Ray lost another challenger when Cheever's engine blew after 34 laps. At this point Ray began to drive away from the field and some good cars started going a lap down. Ray had lapped his way up to 16th, putting Mears and Sarah Fisher a lap down, when the caution flew for oil in turn 2 on lap 45. As the caution came out Ray led with Hornish, Ward, Salazar and Lazier filling the top-5. Most of the field pitted; the pit stops did not alter the top spots, but Shigeaki Hattori moved up to sixed followed by the surprising rookie Didier Andre, Buzz Calkins, Scott Sharp, and another impressive rookie, Felipe Giaffone. Fisher made a quick fuel-only stop, beat Ray out of the pits, and so gained her lap back before the restart under the new lapped-car rule. The green flew on lap 51, and Ray and Hornish took off from the field while two groups formed up, one led by Lazier and Salazar, and another a bit back led by Giaffone and surprising first-time IRNLS starter Cory Witherill.
Two laps later, disaster struck. As the field headed into turn 4, Witherill, leading the second group, blew an engine. He moved up the track in an attempt to get out of the way, but the group behind him was already bunched up. Giaffone moved down to avoid hitting him and Unser was forced to brake hard. Jack Miller darted to the left to avoid Unser, but got down onto the apron, which then tossed his car back up the track into Unser's side. That wasn't nearly the end: Miller's car slid up the track, collecting first Hamilton and then Buhl. On the second impact Miller's car erupted into flames with an intense oil fire, while Buhl slid up and slammed the wall hard. The impact launched a wheel well over the catch fence and into a fortunately closed area of the turn 4 grandstand. After that, as Billy Boat said, " all hell broke loose". Jaret Schroeder, Robby McGehee and Mears made the wrong decision and tried to squeeze by on the outside. Schroeder got caught in the fireball behind Miller's car, while Mears' car went up and flew over the top of all of the other cars, turning Miller momentarily upside down and leaving tire tracks on his teammate Unser's helmet. Hamilton had also hit the slowing Witherill, spinning him, and by this time the turn 4 exit was almost totally blocked. Incredibly, Stan Wattles made it through, but Boat tried to follow and took a hit to his right front. Jon Herb came in late and took several small hits which spun him to the quad-oval infield. Fisher, trailing the group, was able to stop short of the accident site but she drove through a storm of debris (an in-car camera shot from her car resembled a scene from the movie Twister), and took wing and suspension damage. As Miller's car slid down the front stretch, on its side and on fire, it left a trail of burning debris before a final hit providently turned the car back upright and the oil fire finally went out (there was no fuel fire). The accident ground to a halt with eight cars totally destroyed and three others damaged. Incredibly, other than a concussion suffered by Miller, there were no injuries. But almost half of the field was eliminated or crippled, including several cars that might have been challengers to Ray.
Much to everyone's surprise, a red flag was not thrown. For over 30 laps, the field was directed through the pits so that the front stretch could be cleaned up. Fisher's crew ran down to where her car was stopped in turn 4 and pushed her car back to the garage while Herb's car ran into the infield and pushed his car back to his pit; both were repaired and rejoined the race during the caution. (Later in the race Boat also returned and ran some laps to pick up a few positions.) The long caution threw teams' fuel strategies into chaos. Most of the leaders pitted on lap 83, while Ward and Sharp remained on the track and picked up the first two positions.
The green finally came back out on lap 89. But not for long: the efforts of the Tristar team to get Herb going again proved to be futile as his engine blew one lap later. It trailed oil all down the front stretch and the car stopped in turn 2, necessitating another caution and a collective groan from the restless fans. During that one lap, Ray blew by Sharp and Ward to claim the lead before the yellow. Ward, Sharp, and Calkins took the opportunity to get in late pit stops with the hope of being able to run the rest of the race with only one more stop. However, it was now Ward's turn to encounter a problem: his alternator hadn't been charging the battery during the long caution, and now the pit stop depleted the battery, making it necessary to change it at a cost of two laps.
Finally, green came out for good on lap 102. Ray and Hornish drove away from the pack, but the rest of the leaders ran in a tight bunch: Lazier was being pressured by Andre, while Hattori pressed Salazar. After a few laps, with warmer tires Salazar began to gain ground and he caught Lazier and moved to the outside to pass. For almost the next twenty laps the two engaged in a thrilling wheel-to-wheel duel, with Lazier's gains in turns 1-2 making up for Salazar's advantage on the strights. But the side-by-side duel allowed Ray and Hornish to drive away. Meanwhile, Giaffone, who had been running just outside the top-5, had to pit with fuel pickup problems and lost several laps. Another contender down.
On lap 129 Salazar finally pulled ahead of Lazier. By this time Ray had a 6-second lead over Hornish and a a half-lap on Salazar and Lazier, with Sharp and Hattori the last cars still on the lead lap. Wattles, running in the top-10, then had to pit when his engine shut off; his crew had to change a shorted kill switch. With the race continuing without further incident, the field had to make green flag pit stops starting on lap 141. At one point during these stops Sharp (who was able to go farther than the rest of the field thanks to his late stop during the last caution) had a lap on the field and a caution at this point could have made things interesting, but no such occurred and by lap 156 Ray had reassumed his position with a 10-second lead on Hornish, and with the Salazar/Lazier tandem (still nose to tail) the only other cars on the lead lap.
By lap 170 Ray had two-thirds of a lap on Hornish and was threatening to lap the field. The Menard team looked invincible. But even they had made a mistake; during their last pit stop Ray had forgotten to reset his fuel meter, and now the team wasn't sure how much fuel they had on board. This was critical since, with the latter half of the race having gone straight green, most teams were borderline on their fuel. Ray went to his high gear and slowed his pace, and Hornish began reeling him back in. By lap 185, the lead was back down to six seconds. Then the last act was played. Salazar pitted on lap 186 for fuel, giving up third place. On lap 191 Hornish and Lazier pitted as Ray slowed down visibly, being passed by lapped cars. Sharp got his lap back. Sharp, getting better mileage, was gaining two seconds a lap, but Ray had the remaining distance measured. He crossed under the checkered flag 19 seconds ahead of Sharp and immediately behind Calkins, who sputtered across the line; he had also gone the rest of the distance without another stop and his fuel just barely made it, but the gamble got him his first podium finish since New Hampshire in 1996. Hornish crossed the line in fourth, one lap down and clinging to a margin over the rapidly gaining Salazar and Lazier, with Ward getting one of his laps back to end up seventh. Fisher came back from the wreck to complete enougth laps to place 11th. Ray's 184 laps led was the second-highest total in IRNLS history and put Ray over 1000 laps led in his career, only the second IRNLS driver (after Tony Stewart) to accomplish that feat. Salazar tied an IRNLS record with his fourth consecutive top-5 finish.
Fin St Qual Car C/E/T Driver Entrant Laps Status Laps Pts Spd # Led 1 1 218.265 2 D/A/F Greg Ray Menard 200 Running 184 52 2 13 212.414 8 D/A/F Scott Sharp Kelley 200 Running 5 40 3 8 213.339 12 D/A/F Buzz Calkins Bradley 200 Running 35 4 6 213.596 4 D/A/F Sam Hornish Panther 199 Running 1 32 5 7 213.372 14 D/A/F Eliseo Salazar Foyt 199 Running 30 6 9 213.316 91 D/A/F Buddy Lazier Hemelgarn 199 Running 28 7 2 216.144 35 G/A/F Jeff Ward Heritage 199 Running 10 26 8 5 213.870 55 D/A/F Shigeaki Hattori Cunningham 198 Running 24 9 11 212.497 88 G/A/F Airton Dare Xtreme 197 Running 22 10 15 212.051 21 G/A/F Felipe Giaffone Treadway 182 Running 20 11 18 211.946 15 D/A/F Sarah Fisher Walker 178 Running 19 12 16 212.044 92 D/A/F Stan Wattles Hemelgarn 147 Running 18 13 20 210.586 32 G/A/F Didier Andre Galles 139 Clutch 17 14 17 212.031 98 D/A/F Billy Boat Beck 109 Running 16 15 21 210.084 7 D/A/F Stephan Gregoire Simon 95 Unknown 15 16 25 209.310 6 D/A/F Jon Herb Tristar 77 Engine 14 17 14 212.105 3 G/A/F Al Unser Galles 52 Crash T4 13 18 12 212.482 99 D/A/F Davey Hamilton Schmidt 52 Crash T4 12 19 22 209.396 9 D/A/F Jaret Schroeder PDM 52 Crash T4 11 20 19 211.549 24 G/I/F Robbie Buhl D&R 52 Crash T4 10 21 10 212.510 10 D/A/F Robby McGehee Cahill 52 Crash T4 9 22 24 209.358 16 G/A/F Cory Witherill I. Regency 51 Crash T4 8 23 27 Prov. 31 G/A/F Casey Mears Galles 51 Crash T4 7 24 3 215.776 51 D/I/F Eddie Cheever Cheever 34 Engine 6 25 23 209.369 11 D/A/F Jack Miller Cahill 28 Crash T4 5 26 4 215.061 28 D/A/F Mark Dismore Kelley 15 Engine 4 27 26 207.166 30 G/A/F Brandon Erwin McCormack 3 Crash T3 3
Laps under green: 145 of 200 laps (72.5%)
Caution flags: 4 for 55 laps (27.5%)
#1: lap 5, crash (Erwin), T3, 4 laps
#2: lap 46, oil on track, T2, 5 laps
#3: lap 54, crash (Boat, Buhl, Fisher, Hamilton, Herb, McGehee, Mears, Miller, Schroeder, A. Unser, Witherill), T4, 35 laps (IRNLS record to date)
#4: lap 91, blown engine (Herb), FS, 11 laps
Red flags: 0 for 0 minutes
Lead changes: 7, number of race leaders: 4
St: Ward 1-2
#1: Ray 3-47
#2: Hornish 48
#3: Ray 49-82
#4: Ward 83-90
#5: Ray 91-146
#6: Sharp 147-151
#7: Ray 152-200
C/E/T finish averages (# started / avg finish):
Dallara: 18 / 12.8
G-Force: 9 / 16.4
Aurora: 25 / 13.4
Infiniti: 2 / 22.0
Firestone: 27 / 14.0