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Comments for Atlanta -- written July 22, 2000
Congratulations to Greg Ray, who equaled the feat accomplished by Eddie Cheever at Pikes Peak in posting his fourth IRNLS career win at Atlanta. Ray won from the pole and in winning led the most laps, scoring the maximum of 55 points; it's only the third time that has been done since the current points system went into effect in 1998 -- and all three times it has been done by Ray! (Arie Luyendyk won from the pole and led the most laps at Phoenix in 1996, but that was under an older points system. Likewise, Tony Stewart did it at Disney World in 1998, but at that race qualifying was rained out and Stewart was awarded the pole on points; hence he didn't get the bonux points for qualifying.) In addition, Ray's pole was his 9th of his IRNLS career (8th earned); one more and he breaks Tony Stewart's all-time record. In addition, if Ray succeeds in winning the pole at both of the remaining races, which is not out of the question the way the Menard team has been qualifying lately, then he breaks Billy Boat's record of six pole starts in a season, set in 1998.
Ray's 182 laps led was the second-highest laps led total in IRNLS history, short only of the 193 laps led by Tony Stewart at Pikes Peak in 1997, and taking second on the all-time one-race list from Juan Montoya, who led 167 laps at Indy earlier this year. However, one thing I have realized is that you can't go just by the raw total of led in evaluating performances. Here's a table of the 10 (actually 11) best performances in terms of laps led, and as you will see, there are some anamolies:
|#||Driver||Laps Led||Race||% of Race Led||Finish Pos|
|1.||Tony Stewart||193||Pikes Peak 1997||96.5%||1st|
|2.||Greg Ray||182||Atlanta 2000||87.5%||1st|
|3.||Juan Montoya||167||Indianapolis 2000||83.5%||1st|
|4.||Tony Stewart||165||New Hampshire 1996||82.5%||12th|
|5.||Greg Ray||146||Pikes Peak [2nd] 1999||73.0%||1st|
|6.||Scott Sharp||145||Dover 1998||58.5%||1st|
|7.||Scott Goodyear||134||Phoenix 1999||67.0%||1st|
|8.||Tony Stewart||133||Disney World 1997||89.3%||10th|
|9.||Tony Stewart||132||Disney World 1998||66.0%||1st|
|10.||Buzz Calkins||130||Disney World 1996||65.0%||1st|
|11.||Tony Stewart||127||Phoenix 1998||63.5%||2nd|
In terms of percentage of race led, Tony Stewart actually holds the top two spots, with the abbreviated Disney World 1997 race (#8 in the table; it was rained out at 149 laps) holding the second position. Scott Sharp's 1998 Dover effort only ranks 12th in percentage because that was a 248-lap event, the most in IRNLS history to date. I bring all this up not just to belabor the point, but because Nashville has floated the possibility of scheduling a 300-lap event in 2001. We've gotten used to comparing raw laps-led totals because all IRNLS events up to this point (with the exceptions mentioned above) have all been around 200 laps, and with new tracks coming on board at "odd" lengths (Nashville at 1.33 miles and Richmond at 0.75 miles) the underlying assumption is about to be violated. This means that Tony Stewart's record for most laps led in a race is fairly likely to be broken soon, and just looking at the laps-led totals would demean his accomplishment, because in percentage terms that 96.5% of the race that he led on that day at Pikes Peak in 1997 is one hell of an accomplishment and one that I predict won't be topped in the next ten years at least. And it also goes to speak for the competitiveness of the IRNLS, because we all know there are racing series where it is not unusual for one driver to lead an entire race. I don't know that that will ever happen in the IRNLS.
(Incidentally, I realized in looking at the above list that Ray's recent Atlanta run is the only one in the list from a Speedway Motorsports track. I can see the marketing now: "SMI tracks are more competitive!" Score one for Bruton Smith.)
There's an interesting name in the list of drivers who have the most top-5 finishes this season. Buddy Lazier is alone at the top of that list with four, he has one win and three 2nds, a remarkable performance and one that may just bring him his first IRNLS championship. A large group of drivers have three apiece; for the most part they are who you'd expect: there's Cheever, Goodyear (actually having a better season than Scott himself would have you believe), Salazar, Sharp, and Al Unser -- and then there's Donnie Beechler. Donnie seems to have gotten a rep as a crasher (and he didn't do himself any favors in that department at Texas), but the fact is that he has a 3rd and two 5ths to his credit this year. He is hurt in the points standings by two bad showings at Las Vegas (crash, 26th) and Texas (engine, 22nd); had he finished 15th in both of those races he would be 6th in points, one point behind Sharp and Salazar and only 36 points out of the lead. As it is he is 9th in points (with 154, ahead of Ray, Boat, and Ward) and still in contention for the championship. His finishing average of 11.3 is just behind Sharp and actually a bit better than Unser. So if you're looking to sponsor an IRNLS car, give Larry Cahill a call.
Weird Science Dept.: Like most fans, I was floored by the astounding number of engine failures at Atlanta. The hot and dusty conditions really took their toll; officially there were nine cars retired due to engine failure, and really ten considering that Sarah Fisher's wreck started with an engine problem. And the pain was spread around among nearly all the engine shops: Comptech lost three (or four if Fisher's is counted), and Blueprint, Brayton, Ed Pink, IED, NAC, and Roush all lost one each. (In fairness, a few things should be pointed out: (1) Comptech had eight cars in the race, the most of any builder; (2) Logan Racing attributed the failure of their IED engine to loss of water from a cracked line, and (3) Jeff Ward admitted accidentally over-revving his Roush engine during a pit stop.) The nine engine failures in one race shattered the previous IRNLS record of six, last done at Indy in 1998. It reminded me of the 1960s or '70s; not only for the sheer number, but because some of the detonations were so impressive; I don't many first-time race goers from that race will ever forget Buzz Calkins bug-bombing the front stretch! Does this mean that IRNLS engines are unreliable? Well, they certainly are wound tight, and the series's cost containment rules put a cap on the number of really exotic things builders can do for better reliability. However, I think that the extreme heat, humidity, and dust that were present at this race were also factors. I recall that back in the bad old days, when USAC first started going to Ontario, it was hot and dusty there and they had some races where it didn't appear that anyone was going to go the distance. Atlanta has been in a drought, and the dust blowing around the track was amazing; the cars were about the filthiest things I've ever seen at the race's end.
Like no-hitters in baseball, it sometimes seems that pointing out streaks breaks them. Eddie Cheever's blown engine at Atlanta broke his streak of finishing in every race this year and seven races total going back to Texas [2nd] last year; in that streak he one win and four top-5 finishes, had not finished worse than 11th, and had completed all but 10 of 1424 possible laps with an average completion percentage of 99.3%. Buzz Calkins has suffered three DNFs since his record 13-race running-at-finish streak ended at Phoenix earlier this year. The (rather spectacular) blown engine he suffered at Atlanta was his first engine DNF since Pikes Peak in 1998, 20 races ago.
Looking ahead: Usually I try to write something about trends for the upcoming race, focusing on past events at that track or similar tracks. However, Kentucky is of course a new track; it superficially resembles Las Vegas but having seen some test results and other races there I'm convinced that it is different enough so that trends from Vegas aren't going to be too meaningful. So what I decided to do was make a list of the winners of the first race run at each track since the new car formula went into effect in 1997:
1997 Disney World Eddie Cheever 1997 Phoenix Jim Guthrie 1997 Indy Arie Luyendyk 1997 Texas Arie Luyendyk 1997 Pikes Peak Tony Stewart 1997 Charlotte Buddy Lazier 1997 New Hampshire Robbie Buhl 1997 Las Vegas Eliseo Salazar 1998 Dover Scott Sharp 1998 Atlanta Kenny Brack
If there is a moral at all here, it is: If you are a team owner and you want to win Kentucky, get Arie Luyendyk out of retirement.
Milestone starts: The list is surprisingly light this time. Kentucky will be the 40th start for Stephan Gregoire and the 30th for Eliseo Salazar. In making their 26th starts, Tyce Carlson and Donnie Beechler will pass Tony Stewart and Arie Luyendyk on the career starts list, which is kind of amazing to think of; when Arie Luyendyk won his first IRNLS event, Carlson and Beechler were still running regional Sprint cars. Out with the old, in with the new.