In less than a week, the four finalists of the 2022 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series season will meet up in Charlotte, North Carolina for a title fight proper, live on stage at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The Championship 4 quartet of Steven Wilson (Stewart-Haas Esports), Bobby Zalenski (Joe Gibbs Racing), Casey Kirwan (XSET) and Graham A. Bowlin (Charlotte Phoenix) will travel into town from different parts of the United States for the first ever live title fight in series history. Dale Earnhardt Jr will be there to award the new Dale Earnhardt Jr Championship Trophy to the winner at the end of the night.
For Zalenski, this will be his fifth time competing in the Championship 4. It’s his fifth attempt to win the title in six seasons. So far, he’s been unsuccessful, his best finish second in 2020. The other three drivers, all on Deadzone Racing’s setup team, have never made it this far yet in their eNASCAR careers.
With that in mind, Tuesday night will crown the tenth different series champion in 13 seasons. Only one driver ever managed to do it more than once. That would be Ray Alfalla, the 4-Time eNASCAR champ.
HOW THEY MADE IT THIS FAR
The four in contention all took separate paths to make it this far. All of those paths included at least one win on the 2022 season. Wilson enters the fight as the undisputed favorite. Wilson scored the most wins on the season, a total of four, his most recent just a week ago at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It’s only Wilson’s second year, however, making him the most inexperienced of the four in the same breath. Wilson graduated into the series in 2021, driving for what was Roush Fenway Racing at the time in the #17 Ford.
Unable to find victory lane in his rookie year, Wilson still pulled out six Top 5’s and a 13th place in the overall standings.
This season, those close races all turned into winning performances. He scored victories at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Road America, Darlington Raceway and the aforementioned Homestead-Miami. The only other drivers with multiple wins, Michael Conti and Nick Ottinger, were both eliminated last week.
For Zalenski, he brings the most experience by far. However, his path didn’t include a win until he entered the playoffs as the only driver in the Round of 10 on points.
Despite the win-less performance through the first 14 races, Zalenski managed to out-point 36 other drivers in the 40 car field, eventually scoring a clutch Talladega win to advance to Phoenix.
That Zalenski Talladega win came at the cost of Kirwan, who was ahead of the #18 entering the tri-oval. Kirwan was third after the smoke cleared following a tussle with Collin Bowden.
Kirwan’s had a couple of those run-ins this season, his win at Pocono Raceway being one of the most notable finishes in series history.
It’s not to say that the win wouldn’t have put him in, but Zack Novak likely wishes the finish line was about 100 feet closer that day. Regardless, Kirwan, now in his fifth season, had a stellar Round of 10. He scored more points than anyone else without a playoff win, advancing him onward as the third seed.
The final one to make it through was Bowlin, who has had an absolute roller coaster of a third year in the series. Fast week-in and week-out, Bowlin showed pace nearly every event, finding himself in the thick of the battle until late race shenanigans often changed a sure outcome.
WWT Raceway at Gateway went exactly as he drew it up, which advanced him into the playoffs to begin with.
After two fantastic races to start the Round of 10, Bowlin’s third race went haywire on the final lap, resulting in a 26th place effort. However, the series added a drop round to the playoffs, for reasons, and with his first two races, Bowlin outscored Conti by just three points to advance in.
WHAT THE CHAMPIONSHIP 4 DRIVERS SAID
After the race at Homestead-Miami, all four of the Championship 4 drivers were invited to speak with the eNASCAR media core. From their races at Homestead-Miami to the logistics in place to get them to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, here’s what each driver had to say about the entirety of it all.
Traxion.GG, along with RACER.com and KickinTheTires.net, had members of the eNASCAR media on hand to ask the Championship 4 a multitude of questions about what to expect in the upcoming live race event following the penultimate race last Tuesday.
BOBBY ZALENSKI – #18 JOE GIBBS RACING TOYOTA
When asked about his competition, Zalenski said that “the Deadzone guys have been the quickest cars here.”
“We’ve got to figure out what we haven’t had, and that’s how you win this championship,” Zalenski continued. “You have the best car, but it’s down to me that when this championship.
“I’ve failed at it four times already, for various reasons, but I’ve got to focus on myself. Like, if I show up and I’m the fastest driver, fastest car, it’s gonna give me the best chance. If I do those things, make the best calls I can, and I still lose, that’s life. I did all I could.
“I’m not going to go screw up somebody’s race, because I don’t think they would do that to me.”
Last season, Zalenski was one of three Coanda Esports drivers in contention. This season, he’s going alone against a trio of Deadzone drivers.
“The Deadzone cars have been, I think overall, the fastest cars,” Zalenski said. “Their setup builder will probably tell you the same. Those three (drivers) have been the fastest on their team. They all have to race each other too, they all want $100,000.
“I’m just worried about my own car, making sure it’s faster than theirs and making sure I’m driving faster than them. It’s a tall task. It might be the toughest three drivers of all the options I had to go up against. Hell, maybe I’ll lose again, who knows, but maybe I’ll win and beat them all.”
Zalenski will be traveling from Fresno, California, nearly 2,500 miles away. “I’m not going to be able to get my own rig there, it’s kind of impossible to go totally across the country, Zalenski said. “I’m hoping I can get equipment and a rig that I should be OK with. I’ve never driven on any other rigs. I don’t know how it’s going to go, I could be really bad, I could have no feel.
Knowing that he’ll be on different equipment, Zalenski does have some concern about what to expect in Charlotte. “That’s kind of something I’m worrying about, this could go horribly,” Zalenski said. “I could just get blown out of the water there. Not out of nerves, just out of just not feeling comfortable. I guess it could happen to the other guys as well, but I’ve been working a lot on that and trying to plan everything.
“You know, it’s just going to be weird, I guess. I’ve spent a lot of time on that and maybe not enough time on Phoenix, but we’ll be fine. I’m hoping I have the same wheel and pedals with VRS, but leg positioning and seats are going to be different. It might be really uncomfortable. I don’t know, but you’ve just got to overcome these things. Just go do your best.”
Like most others at this level, this will be the first time Zalenski competes in front of a crowd. “I talked a little bit with Conti about it, maybe I’ll talk to Graham,” Zalenski said.
“I’m not going to be on those kind of rigs (that were used at the Charlotte Phoenix live events), but I am curious to see what they thought of it? I’ll have a couple days to get used to this rig, and I’m going to have to put a lot of hours on it to get used to the little things, like monitors … size will be different… distance will be different. I know that for sure.
“My mindset going into this is that I don’t care that I’ve made it four times before. It’s a brand new race. Anything can happen. If I lose, that’s life. You can’t be killing yourself over your losses. You’ve just got to look before try to win and you’ll be happy with yourself.”
GRAHAM A BOWLIN – #48 CHARLOTTE PHOENIX TOYOTA
When it was official that Bowlin would be racing for a title, the relief for the Austin, Texas sim racer was immeasurable. “I thought I missed it there for a second. Oh my God, I was going crazy.
“That final lap was crazy. I was good, I just wanted to stay behind Nick (Ottinger) and just cruise to the finish. Then, he ran out of fuel in front of me. I thought it was intentional at first, but I realized what happened afterwards. We pulled through because of the finishes that I got in the first two rounds.”
The thought process for Bowlin was simple through the majority of that Homestead-Miami race – he just needed to beat Michael Conti.
“I was just asking where Conti was, because he was the only one that was really close and could pass me on points if that race went green from when you could make it on fuel,” Bowlin said. “As soon as I got through the pack and got up to the Top 10, I was just trying to get to Conti.
“Once the caution came out, I was just asking how far I had to finish behind Nick to lock in. I think it was eighth. I was like seventh or sixth. Then I got wrecked and I just thought I lost it, but luckily that Bristol finish really lifted me up. I was trying to finish better than Bristol just to make sure I wasn’t even close to getting passed.”
Already having competed live in front of a small crowd during the eNASCAR Pro Battle, Bowlin has a leg up on his competitors on what to possibly expect. “It’s going to be sick,” Bowlin said. “I mean, I’ve already had experience racing in front of a live audience, so hopefully that experience is an advantage.
“The live audience part will be an advantage, but I think Casey and Bobby are going to be on their regular rigs. I think they’re gonna have the biggest advantage. At the end of the day, if you just calm down the nerves, and it comes down to your driving after getting used to it.”
Having comfort will be a contention point for all drivers, whether they have their own equipment or not. For Bowlin, it’s all about getting a rhythm going.
“The first 20 laps, they’ll probably be a bit nervous, but after that, they’ll get used to it and just drive,” Bowlin said about his competitors. “Muscle memory is a big thing with driving, so having that same seating position is going to be important. I think me and Steven are going to have to get used to something different compared to those guys.
“I won’t be 100 percent comfortable, but I’ll do with what we’ve got. I’ll probably be up to speed, at least close. I’ll just be a little bit inconsistent by like a couple hundredths, like two hundredths. It’ll probably take me about one race length race to get used to it. About 134 laps of practice and then I’ll be fine.
“(NASCAR and iRacing will) be providing everything for us, which is nice. I’ll just be trying to get as much lap time as possible out of the car before we go to Charlotte.”
CASEY KIRWAN – #95 XSET CHEVROLET
Home field advantage could be in play for the Matthews, North Carolina native. The only driver who doesn’t need to travel hundreds of miles, Kirwan says that he’s “looking forward to it.”
“I’ve never raced live in-person before,” Kirwan said. “Everyone kind of always talks about how they want to do it. It’s quite the race for everyone to be doing it for the first time, but I’m looking forward to it.
“It should be a little bit easier for me. I’m only a 20 to 25 minute drive away (from the NASCAR Hall of Fame). I could take my own rig. I don’t know what everyone else is going to have to end up doing, but I’m really looking forward to it.
“It’s going to be fun, to be able to be there in person. I think it’ll be even more electric having all those people around. All I wanted tonight was to go have a shot at it, so I can’t ask for much more.”
This will also be a first for Kirwan, to compete in front of a live audience. “I can probably talk to (Anthony) Alfredo and other people that have done some of the Monday Night stuff. Or Graham as well, that’s right, I guess Graham did it in person as well, I forgot about that.
“It’ll be a little bit different, I don’t know exactly where we’ll be in the Hall of Fame. Probably the biggest thing is to know what’s going on around you. I feel pretty relaxed about it. I’m not too worried.”
With his proximity to the event, Kirwan might be the only driver with the capability to bring his own stuff to the show. “I think I’ll have a little bit of an advantage compared to most, Kirwan said. “I’ll have a bit more comfort in my own rig.
“That’ll help, obviously. I’m just looking forward to it. I think would be fun to see faces and stuff before the race. It’ll kind of be a different experience, you know, talking to people face-to-face before you race.”
As a sim racer who often streams, however, there’s quite a lot of equipment that needs to be sorted. “It shouldn’t be too difficult,” Kirwan said. “Thankfully Sim Seats has it pretty simple. It should be fine. I think the biggest thing is just getting all wires, making sure you got everything, unplugging everything.
“Honestly, I think the dismantling will be harder than just setting it back up there, all the wires and getting all of that together. I don’t think it’ll be too difficult. Obviously it’ll be a bit of a hassle, but definitely worth it, having familiar equipment to go there.”
Making the Championship 4 was always a goal this season, but Kirwan may find himself in a schedule bind. “I kind of have to wait until we get the schedule.
“I’ve had a planned vacation to go to the F1 race the weekend before for a while,” Kirwan said. “Obviously, this takes precedent. Like, if we need to be set up, it all depends when we have to be set up by.
“I’m supposed to be back Monday, in plenty of time. I’ll just sweat out for the next seven days doing all the practice leading up to that and I think that’ll be good for me, I think.”
As for testing, possibly even around a vacation to Texas, Kirwan isn’t too worried. “It’s going to be a lot of testing for the week leading up,” he said.
“Maybe I’ll be in Austin for COTA, we’ll see. Part of me was like, ‘man, I’m kind of putting myself at a disadvantage’, but with everyone else having to travel in… they may all be losing, probably not as much time as me, but still a decent bit of time.
“They’ll have to get used to new rigs and stuff like that. We’ll see how it all works out, but it’ll be a busy two weeks no matter which way it goes.”
STEVEN WILSON – #10 STEWART-HAAS ESPORTS FORD
Possibly the favorite for the title, Wilson cemented his place in the final four with a win at Homestead-Miami last week. This will be his first time racing in front of a crowd as well, and also against opponents sitting right next to him. “Yeah, I think it’s going to be cool, Wilson said.
“I think it’s a first time experience for most of us. I’ll have two of my setup teammates there in Casey and Graham. I’ve already met both of them, so it should be fun to see them again. I think just making that event is a win for me.I’ll be happy to be there, no matter what happens.
“I’d assume that Graham is going to know better than the other three of us having done that already this year. I don’t really have it confirmed of if I’m bringing my own rig and whatever. I still have to work that out over the next week and a half.”
The Iowan from Guttenberg doesn’t have quite as long of a journey as Bowlin or especially Zalenski. However, it’ll still be a journey needing proper logistical sorting prior to the event.
“It’s going to be a lot of planning from now until then, while also making sure I’ll show up no matter what equipment I’m in,” Wilson said. “Hopefully everything equipment wise works well. Then, it’s just up to me on the track.
“My whole family is looking forward to going, so I guess I’ve got to figure out how long we’re going to go and make sure they’re all there to watch too.”
Equipment, again, is on everyone’s mind for the Tuesday night show. “I’d assume that our equipment will be exactly the same or very similar,” Wilson said. “I think it shouldn’t be too big of a problem. I think a couple test days would probably be fine for me, depending on what they tell me.
“If they tell us ahead of time, which I assume they will, what they’ll have for us if we don’t bring our own stuff, then I can think about that and test out settings here to make it feel similar to whatever will I have there, if it’s going to be different.
“I’m not worried about practice or anything, I think I’ll do plenty of my own at home. I think depending on the equipment, I think having plenty of practice here so I can just transition to the wheel, pedals, rig in a couple of days.
“I don’t really think it should take too long to get close to the same feel or close to the same speed with a ton of practice. We’ll just know what to do naturally.”
Coming in as a four-time winner on the season, yet with the least experience of all is not a problem for Wilson. “I think I have a lot of confidence overall,” Wilson said.
“(At Homestead-Miami), I was feeling really good about my personal pace. “I think that being confident overall for me is just something that I’ve taken pride in this year. I think it really does work.
“Just believing in myself to go out there and do what I can do and not get too angry and whatever if something bad happens. Just knowing that I can come back from it.”
One battle remains in the 2022 eNASCAR season. Like the real-world NASCAR Cup Series, Phoenix Raceway will host the Championship 4 event for eNASCAR as well.
The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series Championship 4 finale will kickoff at 9:00 p.m. EDT / 2:00 a.m. BST following the Countdown to Green, which kick off an hour earlier at 8:00 p.m. EDT / 1:00 a.m.