HAMPTON, Ga. - The rest of the Indy Racing Northern Lights Series had all day to catch Greg Ray before Friday night's qualifying session at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
They didn't come close.
Now they've only got one afternoon to close the gap before the start of the zMAX 500.
Ward was fastest in two different practice sessions leading up to time trails, then he continued is mastery of the 1.56-mile quad-oval with a pole-position run of 218.265 mph. His Oldsmobile Aurora-powered Dallara IndyCar was more than two mph than the rest of the 27-car field.
"Having a car that's perfectly that a driver has the confidence to keep the throttle on the floorboard is really a big issue," Ray said. "We're all dealing with the same mousetrap out there. You can make four or five changes to the car and it won't affect it very much. But if you make 100 changes like this team does, it makes a difference."
Ray was clocked at 217.418 mph in a pre-qualifying practice session, while Eddie Cheever was the second-quickest during the session at 216.525. While most of the field struggled to maintain their speeds during time trials, Ray actually found more speed.
The Indy Racing League has been chasing Ray on qualifying day for more than a year. He's started on the pole in eight of his last 12 races, and three of the four times he wasn't the fastest in time trials, he had the second-fastest speed twice and the third-fastest once.
"No, no, we weren't going to catch him," said Jeff Ward, whose speed of 216.144 mph was second-fastest and will allow him to flank Ray on the front row when the race starts at 7 p.m. (ESPN2). "Our goal was a front-row (outside pole) position.
"Everyone knew he was going to be good for qualifying, but there's things we can do to the cars (during two different practice sessions early today leading up to the start of the race) to even it up. The race is a different animal. I think we can keep up with him."
Ray's ability to close the deal has become notorious on the open-wheeled series. While he's been a terror on qualifying day for more than a year -- including a pole victory for the Indianapolis 500 -- he's only transferred that success to a win on race day once. And that came at Atlanta last July.
"It's not a big speed to be concerned about," Ward said. "I can stay with him. My G-Force chassis has too much drag. While that's not good in qualifying, it will be good for the race. Fuel mileage and your strategy after that last fuel stop is critical. If he goes out ahead of us, he will be hard to beat. If we get out ahead of him, we will be hard to beat."
Cheever qualified third at 215.776 mph, while Mark Dismore is fourth at 215.061, Shigeaki Hattori is fifth at 213.870, Sam Hornish Jr. is sixth at 213.596, Eliseo Salazar is seventh at 213.372, Buzz Calkins is eighth at 213.339, Buddy Lazier is ninth at 213.316 and Robby McGehee is 10th at 212.510.
Al Unser Jr., a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, qualified 14th at 212.105 mph, while Sarah Fisher was 18th at 211.946.
NOTES: Lt. Regina Kauffman, the navigator of the U.S. Navy's American EP-3E Aires II spy plane that was detained in China for two weeks after it had a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet, will serve as the Grand Marshall for the zMAX 500.
Included in the festivities to honor the 24-member crew is a promotion to allow all men and women with military identifications to purchase half-price tickets for tonight's main event.
GIANT FIRST STEP: Not only is Cory Witherill the first Indian to race on the IndyCar circuit since Joey Chitwood more than 50 years ago, tonight's race will mark his debut on the Indy Racing Northern Lights Series.
Witherill decided to start his racing career in the Indy Racing League one race before the Indianapolis 500. He's already passed his rookie test to compete in next month's race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but he figured 200 laps around Atlanta's towering 1.56-mile raceway would be good practice.
"It was good to be out there," he said. "Obviously it was exciting for me. I'm still learning the track. The track isn't too different from the other ovals I've been on. There is a lot of banking, and I haven't been on such high banking in a long time. You really have to make sure you know the corners."
Witherill, a Navajo, qualified 24th at 209.358 mph.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Eddie Cheever didn't test during the off-season, and it showed in his first two races.
He finished 19th at Phoenix and ninth at Homestead, Fla.
Cheever did a test session at Atlanta two weeks ago, in addition to doing some work in the wind tunnel and some development work for the new Infiniti 35A engine. The extra work paid off with a third-place starting position during Friday night's time trails.
"We are trying to do in two months what would normally take eight months to a year," Cheever said after running 215.776 mph. "We're finally able to play our best cards for Indy here at Atlanta, not only in terms of engine performance but also in terms of aerodynamics.
"We're taking advantage of the fact that this race is so fast to get ready for the Indianapolis 500."
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