Greg Ray totally dominated the Midas 500 Classic at the Atlanta International Raceway on Saturday night but the performance came too late to save his title hopes.

If it wasn't the fact that Greg Ray led a staggering 182 laps of a possible 208 that signified his complete control of Saturday's Midas 500 Classic, then it was the style in which he led them.

As the sun set over the Atlanta skyline, Ray's Team Menard Dallara-Aurora was majestic as the 1999 Indy Racing Northern Light Series Champion guided his green and yellow mount away from the rest of the IRNLS field as he liked.

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As dusk turned to night, Ray sparkled under the floodlights, twice cutting through the leaders with ease to regain the lead he lost during the pit-stops. Once back in the lead, Ray was always able to pull away almost at will, at times opening up a staggering 18 seconds lead over his nearest pursuers.

The joyous scenes in the Menard garage after the race were tempered with the feeling that if only the team had gelled as a unit earlier in the year, they could be looking at a second IRNLS title. Sadly for Ray, his dismal season thus far has rendered it impossible for him to retain his title and from Saturday onwards, all results are simply acts of damage limitation.

Almost as expected Ray led the 25 car field away from pole position and quickly opened up a sizeable lead. Many people thought that Ray couldn't sustain his searing pace for the entire race and that something would break, be it the car or driver, not many realised that it was a sign of things to come.

For those people hoping for a lead battle akin to the Texas race earlier this year, Ray's dominance was a minor disappointment although the rest of the field did their best to keep the sadly sparse crowd on their feet for the entire race.

First to give chase to Ray were third placed starter Donnie Beechler and impressive rookie Jeret Schroeder. Theses two had opened up a small gap back to the squabbling pack who were running side by side from fourth place almost back to last.

Ray's expanding lead was pegged back after only 15 laps when Airton Dare's impressive run came to an end with the loss of another engine. The Team Xtreme driver spun to a halt on the entrance to Turn One after oil and water from the grenaded unit found its way onto his rear tyres. Little did the young Brazilian know that he was simply setting the trend for others to follow.

It took several laps for the IRNLS track crew to clear any moisture from the track that Dare had deposited and on lap 19 the field were flagged away once more.

The pattern of the opening stint was followed again as the race went green with Ray pulling out a two second lead over Beechler and Schroeder with the rest of the leaders following, a safe distance behind.

Into fourth place had come Robbie Buhl in the Dreyer & Reinbold G-Force although Eliseo Salazar, Jeff Ward, Buddy Lazier, Eddie Cheever and Mark Dismore had all taken their turns giving chase to the top three. However the most startling progress in the opening laps had come from Al Unser Jr who had risen from 24th on the grid to tenth in the race after just 25 laps of the 1.5 mile Atlanta International.

The fading light, which had caused the drivers major problems in the opening laps, had now disappeared, the track now illuminated by powerful floodlights situated all around the practically empty grandstands. It is still a great shame that the IRNLS cannot attract a larger crowd to see what the drivers have to offer as the racing is both close and entertaining. The attendance on Saturday was pitiful with large areas of the stands completed empty. Track estimates put the crowd at just over 10,000, not bad if young are a second division soccer team but awful when NASCAR can bring more than 100,000 passionate fans to the track. It is unsurprising that AIR does not feature on the re-vamped 2001 IRNLS schedule as it is just too far into the heart of NASCAR country for the series to ever take off.

Sadly, the problem which had afflicted Dare was about to spoil what was a highly entertaining race and the old problem with the IRNLS, reliability reared its ugly head once more. When Scott Harrington in the Mid America Motorsports Dallara lost power and stopped on the circuit after 40 laps, the pace car was deployed and the leaders all dived onto pit-road for their first round of stops. Ray lost time with a stuck right rear wheel nut while Sarah Fisher, running twelfth after starting in a brilliant fifth, stalled the engine and lost a lap. For Schroeder though the problem was more severe as an exhaust splitter had broken causing his engine to lose power. It was a sad end to a promising day for the young driver and his Tri Star crew.

Ray's problem left him in ninth place in the queue as the leaders filed back onto the track. Beechler now had the top spot followed by Lazier, Cheever and Dismore while the rest of those drivers left on the lead lap tucked in dutifully behind. Already off the lead lap were Fisher after her pit lane mishap, tail-enders Stevie Reeves, JJ Yeley, Harrington and Scott Sharp who lost 20 laps right at the start when his car lost gears on the opening lap. Once back in the race however, the Kelley driver was as quick as the leaders and had attached himself to the back of the lead group, staying with them despite his lowly position.

When the race went green, there was no sudden burst from Beechler who was swallowed up by Dismore, Lazier and Unser Jr on the run into Turn One. Already Ray was charging and went side by side all along the back straight and through the third turn with Cheever for fifth place.

As in Texas a lead group broke clear and for some 20 laps the top eleven drivers circulated together, furiously battling with one another but keeping the action clean and safe. Ray made light work of Cheever and Beechler on his crusade to the front, moving to the outside of Lazier and running side by side with the Hemelgarn driver for more than a lap before taking second away. Dismore posed nothing more than a small problem to the charging Ray and he was dispatched for the lead after just six thrilling green flag laps.

Unlike earlier tin the race, the top three remained close to one another, Ray's average speed dropping by some two mph per lap as he attempted to conserve his machinery. The top eleven were still close although there was a small gap from Lazier in third back to Cheever who was now in fourth. Robby McGehee had now joined in the scrap for fourth place and had made short work of Beechler and Unser on his way to fifth. McGehee, who finished second at Texas had been something of a disappointment until raceday, but in the draft his car was working to perfection and he was finally able to show his hand.

With Ray successfully dispelling the onslaught from Lazier and Dismore, much of the attention remained with the tremendous scrap for fourth which was now occupied by McGehee. The Treadway driver pulled away from the demoted Cheever and set about reducing the gap to the leaders, a task which was made much easier on lap 69 when Buzz Calkins lost an engine on the front stretch and brought out the third caution of the race.

Once again the leaders headed for the pits where the usually slick Menard crew encountered more problems, this time with a sticking right front. Almost punching his steering wheel in anger, Ray made his way back onto the track in sixth place behind new leader Mark Dismore. McGehee's crew had done an excellent job to get him out ahead of Cheever and Lazier for second place while Beechler kept up his strong run in fifth.

Once Calkins' car had been removed Cheever made a daring lunge down the inside of McGehee for second on the re-start, complementing his manoeuvre with a fine pass on Dismore as they entered Turn Three. The Infiniti engine was living true to its reputation for being better in the race than in qualifying, Cheever once again able to stretch his Aurora powered opponents down the back straight and hang on to his lead, for now.

Behind Cheever, Ray had once again cut through the rest of the pack like a hot knife through butter and after seven thrilling green flag laps he was back in the lead. Immediately Ray put his foot down and the leaders, who had been bunched closely from Cheever back to Salazar in eleventh, were stretched out slightly.

Then suddenly and without warning, Cheever's Infiniti engine expired on the front stretch, dashing any hopes he had of retaining his championship lead. Thanks to Cheever's ability in getting his car off line and off the track without spreading oil and water all over the racing line, no yellow lags were shown and the race continued with Ray increasing his lead by as much as a second per lap.

Cheever looked thoughtfully on from the pit wall as he watched his slim points lead evaporate while out on the track, drivers began watching their revs more closely after the fifth engine blow up inside the first 100 laps. Joining Dare, Schroeder, Calkins and Cheever on the sidelines was Stevie Reeves whose run in the Logan Racing Dallara had ended after 90 laps.

As Ray hammered on relentlessly into the second half of the race, the gap from him back to second place grew to an incredible 18 seconds at one point. His cause was helped by the great scrap for second involving Lazier, McGehee and Dismore. For lap after lap McGehee and Lazier ran side by side, Lazier on the outside with inches to spare against the outside wall. At times the two were so close it was scary, wheels interlocking at over two hundred miles an hour, but neither driver flinched and contact was not made. What this did do, was allow Ray to make his escape as the leaders approached the pit window for the third round of stops.

Mindful of their previous two stops, the Menard crew were understandably steady during their first green flag stop of the day and Ray returned to the track with a comfortable eleven second lead over Dismore. The Team Kelley crew had pulled out all the stops to get their driver back on track ahead of Lazier and McGehee who were still battling furiously for third.

Such was Ray's pace on full tanks and cold tyres that when everyone had completed their stops, in addition to the top four, only Unser and Salazar were able to keep their positions on the lead lap. Davey Hamilton had continued his good run and had moved into seventh by virtue of having pitted out of sequence and he was followed by Goodyear who was another who had chosen to pit under a previous caution. Occupying ninth was Billy Boat who had risen quietly through the order in his Team Pelfrey Dallara while Beechler, Buhl (in the sole remaining Infiniti powered car), and Kite completed the top dozen.

The penultimate round of stops had accounted for Ward who was unable to select any gears as he left the pits, and Harrington whose electrics finally died after a long delay to try and cure the problem proved fruitless.

The race was interrupted again on lap 138 to allow the course workers to remove some pieces of debris from the track. This once more negated Ray's advantage and new second place man Lazier made sure that he was as close as possible to the leader as the pace car pulled off. Dismore still held third while Unser Jr had risen to fourth and was now working with McGehee to haul in those ahead of them. Dismore was their first target and the two second gap between the cars quickly evaporated. Neither Unser Jr or McGehee had to worry about passing the Team Kelley car though which blew up spectacularly just as Dismore crossed the start/finish line to complete lap 147. With oil and water pouring onto the rear tyres, Dismore got into a wild spin and looked to be heading for the wall but somehow he managed to save the car and brought it safely to a halt half way around Turn One. What he didn't realise is that he had been spreading oil for much of his final lap and the circuit was coated in slippery stuff.

While Dismore clambered away from his machine, a little shaken up after such a monumental moment, the pace car was deployed and a 16 lap caution period ensued while the course workers, who were really earning their money, covered the oil patches with drying dust. The caution allowed everyone to make their final stops for fuel although Goodyear was still out of sequence and gambled on another quick yellow and chose not to pit. He was joined on that strategy by Salazar, a move which elevated the pair to fifth and sixth places respectively.

Ray retained his lead with little difficulty as Lazier chose to pit at the end of the caution period, dropping to fourth and the tail of the queue but with plenty of gas to run flat out to the finish.

On lap 163 with 45 to go, Ray took the green and immediately passed several slower cars to move into some clear air. Second place man Unser Jr simply did not have an answer to the Team Menard Dallara and dropped away where he was passed by the scintillating Lazier.

Ray duly reeled off the last 40 laps without any undue hassle, and his margin of victory would have been greater than three seconds had it not been for a caution period with 14 laps to go when Fisher crashed, spoiling what had been the best race weekend of her IRNLS career.

Lazier and Unser battled hard to the finish with the Hemelgarn driver just edging out his Galles Racing counterpart on the final lap. Lazier now moves back to the top of the Championship with Cheever only being classified 21st on a day where no less than eight drivers had their races curtailed by broken engines.

McGehee maintained his incredible record of having finished all but one of this seasons seven races thus far. The Treadway driver could not get on terms with the battle for second and finished a little under four seconds behind Ray.

Both Salazar and Goodyear were forced to stop before the final caution flag came out and so fifth place was taken by Beechler who richly deserved a good result after his penultimate lap disaster in Pikes Peak. The unsponsored Cahill owned car fended off Buhl and Friday pace-setter Stephan Gregoire while Boat, Shigeaki Hattori and Salazar rounded out the top ten.

Jimmy Kite's impressive run came to an end just nine laps from home when, yep you've guessed it, his engine let go as did Hamilton's and Sharp's whose failure was pinpointed to falling oil pressure.

Goodyear survived to finish eleventh but was three laps down on the winner while Kite was classified twelfth. Tyce Carlson looked set to score his first top ten result of the year until a late race problem cost him more than ten laps. He still finished 13th for the hard trying Hubbard team. Fisher was 14th but bitterly disappointed after such a hard fought drive looked set to give her a top ten finish.

Two races to go and the championship is still wide open. Lazier leads but Cheever, Sharp, Goodyear, Salazar, Unser Jr, Dismore and a host of others can still take the title. Kentucky on August 27th - don't miss it.