By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
Of the 10 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series playoff drivers, only one, Michael Conti, has the chance to become a repeat champion.
The JR Motorsports driver ended up in the unexpected position after other past eNASCAR champions failed to make the 10-driver playoff grid. Conti made the playoffs by virtue of his win in the season opener at the virtual Daytona International Speedway. He remained in the top-20 in points throughout the regular season. Ray Alfalla and Ryan Luza were the only other past champions to win, but neither were high enough in points to make the grid.
2019 eNASCAR champion Zack Novak and defending champion Nick Ottinger both went winless in the regular season. That puts the 2014 eNASCAR champion in the unexpected position. Conti is the flag bearer for the veterans of the series.
“It’s not a position that I really thought I’d be in going into the playoffs this year,” admitted Conti. “We’ve got a few past champions that were really strong this year in Luza and Ottinger. Nick just had some tough luck at the end of the regular season and couldn’t grab a victory to get in. Luza had a dismal last couple of races and fell out based on his points positions.
“I guess I’m proud to be the only champion to be in it. I think it just shows how long I’ve been here and how we’ve been able to be consistent and be contenders every year. So, I’m proud of that, proud of the team, and proud of everybody that’s allowed us to get here., As far as, as far as pressure, I’m not really putting any extra pressure on myself holding that title. But obviously still just as hungry as ever to get another championship and finish another one off.”
The surprises were not limited to Conti being the only past eNASCAR champion in the playoffs. In the 14-race regular season, the iRacing-based series had 13 different winners. Mitchell deJong was the only repeat winner.
The strength of the eNASCAR field has grown significantly since Conti’s title in 2014. The driver of the virtual No. 8 WR1 Sim Chassis Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE went winless in 2015, 2016, and 2019. The 24-year-old’s win at Daytona earlier this year was just his 11th career win. The 2021 eNASCAR season has seen four first-time winners in Graham Bowlin, Bob Bryant, deJong, and Vicente Salas.
“I’m honestly very surprised,” explained Conti. “When we won the race at Daytona, we thought that that was pretty much going to lock us in barring falling out of the top-20 in points. Then once we got further into the regular season and you were just accumulating more and more different winners, we quickly realized that there was a very good chance that we’d have more winners than we had playoff spots.
“Ultimately with five or six races to go, that’s exactly what happened. As far as the parity goes, this series is more competitive than ever. When I first started in 2012, you had a decent gap between the fastest guys and the guys that were in the back, you had a gap in skill, a gap in setups, and in lap times.
“There’s more area to move throughout the field, more opportunities to make passes and improve your position. Now everybody’s really running within a tenth or so of each other. It is super hard to get an edge on this field and people are putting more and more time into it than ever because of the amount of money that’s up for grabs now, and because of the real team’s involvement.”
The first round of the 2021 eNASCAR playoffs will take the series to Darlington Raceway, Bristol Motor Speedway, and Talladega Superspeedway. Statistically, both Bristol and Darlington have been among Conti’s best tracks. In his last trip to Darlington with a similar aero package, Conti dominated the race. At Bristol last year, he earned a top-five after leading much of the race.
A win at either track would lock Conti into eNASCAR’s Championship Four. Enough points at both tracks would also give the sim racer a sizeable cushion heading into Talladega. Although he won the season opener at Daytona, Conti was one of just a handful that finished the race. Many were swept up in the final lap crash in the final turn.
“If you could put any group of tracks in the first round, outside of Talladega, because honestly it’s a crapshoot, Darlington and Bristol are pretty much the best tracks personally that I could have asked for with the high horsepower, low downforce package and our history of really, really good runs,” stated Conti. “Those two tracks, especially at Darlington, we’ve got as good a shot as anybody else to pull off a win in those first two races.
“Darlington for us has always been solid. Last time we raced there in this car configuration, this aero package, we absolutely dominated the race. I think we lapped up to seventh back in 2018. We had a great car back then, which allowed me to put all the performance that I did. But we know we need to feel out of the car, what we need to get out of the setup. I think we’ve got the tools to pull off a win at Darlington.
“Ultimately now it’s going to be up to me as the driver to make it happen. Then Bristol 2020, we led a bunch of laps there. I think we finished third or fourth. So, we’ve got a really good shot even if we don’t win. I think we can get a bunch of points in those first two races, put ourselves at a good spot in the Talladega and hopefully be in a position to make it into Texas.”
The opening race of the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series playoffs starts August 31, at 9:00 p.m. ET. Coverage starts with the eNASCAR Countdown to Green at 8:30 p.m. ET here.
Featured Photo Credit: Photo by Justin Melillo