By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
In a must-win situation, Michael Conti dominated the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series race at Texas Motor Speedway to earn a chance at a championship.
In the opening round of the eNASCAR Playoffs, Conti blew the motor of his virtual No. 8 WR1 Sim Chassis Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. Then at Kansas Speedway, he was swept up in a last lap accident that put him 43-points behind the cutoff entering Texas.
Conti moved into the lead during a round of green flag pit stops. A caution in the middle of the cycle on lap 67 allowed the JR Motorsports driver to retain the lead after pitting. Conti lost the lead on lap 97 to Roush Fenway Racing’s Kollin Keister before retaking the lead after another green flag pit cycle.
Then with 25 laps to go, another caution waved. That set Conti and his roommate, Burton-Kligerman eSports driver Logan Clampitt, up on the front row for the restart. The field made it around for two laps before another caution waved. On the ensuing restart, Eric J. Smith spun across the nose of his teammate Michael Guariglia.
As the cautions continued to breed cautions, Conti and Clampitt appeared set to lock down the front two positions. When the race restarted, Keister forced his way below Clampitt in turns one and two. As the driver of the No. 99 Valvoline Toyota Camry broke loose, chaos erupted behind him.
eNASCAR Playoff driver Ray Alfalla was spun in front of the field. Fellow Playoff drivers Jimmy Mullis and Garrett Lowe had nowhere to go as the wreck momentarily blocked the backstretch. The massive pile-up forced the race into overtime.
In overtime, Conti masterfully defended the lead from Keister and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Graham Bowlin. Coming to the checkered, chaos once again erupted behind the leader as Bowlin, Keister, eNASCAR Playoff driver Keegan Leahy, and others crashed.
Conti took the checkered flag, securing a spot to the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with his JR Motorsports teammate Brad Davies 0.260 seconds behind him. It marked the first time that the Dale Earnhardt Jr.-owned operation has finished one-two in eSports competition. Conti’s win was his 10th-career victory in the series and his first since Dover International Speedway in 2018.
“I just can’t believe this actually happened,” Conti admitted in disbelief. “This is just crazy. I have never been that excited to win a race before. I won a championship, a championship, and I was monotone, but this was crazy. This was the most intense season by far.
“To be in the spot after the Roval where I had a ‘money-shift,’ that was a really bad time to be in that spot. I was in position last week only to have it ripped away. Just when I thought I was just going to walk away with it tonight in that last run, but then it got exciting again. I can’t thank everyone enough, WR1, Dale, thanks for believing in me. It took two years to get a win, but we did it at the right time.”
Following Davies through the grass was Playoff driver Bobby Zalenski. Clampitt and Keister crashed across the line to round out the top-five. Corey Vincent, Nick Ottinger, Brandon Kettelle, Dylan Duval, and John Gorlinsky avoided the mayhem to complete the top-10 finishers.
Championship 4 Determined
With his Texas win, Conti joins Kansas winner Ottinger and Roval winner Zalenski at Homestead as a member of the Championship 4. Ryan Luza edged Mullis out by three points to transfer to a championship opportunity.
Joining Mullis on the outside looking in are Alfalla, Leahy, and Lowe.
Relegation Battle Heats Up
The relegation battle became clearer as several drivers locked themselves into the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series for 2021. Joining the eight playoff drivers are Bowlin, Clampitt, Davies, Jake Nichols, Blake Reynolds, and Vincent. Bob Bryant, 45-points above 20th, will lock himself into the series in 2021 when the green flag waves at Homestead.
Meanwhile over 10 drivers are battling for the four remaining guaranteed spots. Eight drivers have been relegated to the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series to fight for a chance to return next season. Phillip Diaz, Alex McCollum, Malik Ray, Brian Schoenburg, Steve Sheehan, Jarl Teien, and Santiago Tirres will all compete in the Pro Series during the off-season.
1. 8-Michael Conti , 2. 88-Brad Davies , 3. 83-Bobby Zalenski , 4. 99-Logan Clampitt , 5. 17-Kollin Keister , 6. 27-Corey Vincent , 7. 25-Nick Ottinger , 8. 14-Brandon Kettelle , 9. 41-Dylan Duval , 10. 97-John Gorlinsky , 11. 32-Keegan Leahy , 12. 36-Chris Shearburn , 13. 6-Nathan Lyon , 14. 3-Blake Reynolds , 15. 18-Graham Bowlin , 16. 47-Steve Sheehan , 17. 5-Matt Bussa , 18. 24-Jake Nichols , 19. 37-Christian Challiner , 20. 16-Chris Overland [28[, 21. 4-Santiago Tirres , 22. 21-Garrett Lowe , 23. 75-Phillip Diaz , 24. 90-Zack Novak , 25. Ryan Luza , 26. 54-Alex McCollum , 27. 15-Michael Guariglia , 28. 23-Casey Kirwan , 29. 55-Caine Cook , 30. 10-Justin Bolton , 31. 46-Jimmy Mullis , 32. 77-Bob Bryant , 33. 79-Brian Schoenburg , 34. 33-Michael Guest , 35. 2-Ray Alfalla , 36. 51-Malik Ray , 37. 9-Eric J. Smith , 38. 66-Jarl Teien .
Lead Changes: 14 among 11 drivers.
Lap Leader(s): Graham Bowlin 1-2, Bob Bryant 3-6, Keegan Leahy 7-12, Graham Bowlin 13-18, Ryan Luza 19-21, Bob Bryant 22-49, Michael Guest 50-57, Casey Kirwan 58-64, Michael Conti 65-96, Kollin Keister 97-117, Michael Conti 118-120, Malik Ray 121-124, John Gorlinsky 125, Brian Schoenburg 126-131, Michael Conti 132-169.
Laps Led: Michael Conti 73, Bob Bryant 32, Kollin Keister 21, Graham Bowlin 8, Michael Guest 8, Casey Kirwan 7, Brian Schoenburg 6, Keagan Leahy 6, Malik Ray 4, Ryan Luza 3, John Gorlinsky 1.
Hard Charger: 14-Brandon Kettelle (+29).
Tough Break: 77-Bob Bryant (-30).
Cautions: Six for 23 laps.
Margin of Victory: 0.260 seconds.
Time of Race: One hour, 47 minutes, 10.732 seconds.
Average Speed: 141.912 MPH.
Pole Winner: 18-Graham Bowlin, 28.231 seconds (191.279 MPH).
Fastest Lap: 4-Santiago Tirres, Lap 162, 28.435 seconds (189.907 MPH).
Strength of Field: 6,775 average iRating.
Photo by Seth Eggert / Kickin’ the Tires