The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series kicks off their 2021 playoffs at Darlington Raceway on Tuesday night. The playoff field is composed of ten drivers, all of which needed a win to secure their spot. In his first season, Mitchell deJong is the only driver entering the playoffs with multiple victories. In his tenth season, Michael Conti is the only past champion eligible for the title. Three drivers with wins didn’t even make the playoffs, since there were only 10 spots available.
In their own rights, both deJong and Conti have accomplished so much on the iRacing platform. deJong may be in his rookie eNASCAR season, but he’s a decorated champion in the iRacing Rallycross World Championship series, winning that title back in 2018. deJong also competes in other championship series competitively, such as the Porsche TAG Heuer Esports Supercup. Conti is one of the longest tenured drivers in the eNASCAR iRacing series, full-time driving since 2012. Conti is the 2014 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series Champion.
As we enter the Round of 10, both drivers are looking for a path to the Championship 4 race at Texas Motor Speedway on 12th October. I sat down with both drivers on Friday and discussed their seasons so far, their mindsets entering the playoffs, and their outlook for the final four races of the 2021 season.
No. 23 – Mitchell deJong – 23XI Racing Toyota Camry
JUSTIN MELILLO: “Mitchell, you’re a decorated racer in real racing and online on the iRacing platform already. Now you’re over here on the eNASCAR side of town as a rookie driver in the series. What is that like, having to balance so many different disciplines of racing, and how do you do it so well?”
MITCHELL DEJONG: “It’s definitely difficult to take on so many high-level series. I think the most important thing, that kind of goes without saying, is that I really enjoy racing, kind of all types of disciplines. I’ve just been in a kind of fortunate situation with the team I’m a part of, kind of being in so many different things at the top level in iRacing. It’s kind of given me the platform and the ability to try my hand at all these different things.
“Obviously, on the oval side of things, being with the group I’m with (Coanda Simsport), of Keegan Leahy, Bobby (Zalenski) and Chris (Shearburn), you know, I have some of the best people to learn from. Kind of learning from Keegan, spotting for him has been my gateway into the series and what made me realize I really enjoy it. It definitely takes a lot of commitment and discipline to separate your time. It does take away from maximizing yourself in everything. You have to plan it out really well.”
Melillo: “You’re the only driver with multiple wins on the season, grabbing victories at COTA and Road America. How would you rate yourself in this first full time season in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series to this point and why?”
deJong: “I’d say it’s been quite up and down. The start of the season was really difficult for me, if I’m honest. I would say, up until Vegas, that was really the point where I was like ‘man, I need to start to figure this stuff out, because we are really struggling here with silly mistakes and what not.’ Things have definitely turned around in the second half of the regular season.
“It’s going quite well now. I can’t believe where we ended up in points for the regular season. Of course, getting the wins at the road courses has been really cool too. To see how it’s come around, I’m really happy with how it’s been so far. I think this has already kind of exceeded my expectations. Just being in the playoffs is super cool for me. Hopefully now we can make that run at the final four and then maybe, maybe try to go for the win.”
Melillo: “Are there any of these next three tracks, at Darlington, Bristol or Talladega, that you feel you have the best chance at breaking through for a win?”
deJong: “I think these first two, both Darlington and Bristol, will probably be the most important, I guess, since it’s the tracks where you can make the most differences as a driver in terms of raw speed. There’s a lot of risk involved with going fast at those tracks. You have to maximize that and make sure you’re prepared. I think those are the best chances. Talladega, and even the finale (at Texas) will be quite difficult to have the race go exactly as you plan. I think it’s going to be incredibly important to try and maximize at these first two. “
Melillo: “You were picked up by 23XI Racing during the offseason to race alongside your Coanda teammate Keegan Leahy. At times this season, you’ve gotten to spoil a few paint schemes that the 23XI Racing team ran the following races in the real world. How has that been like for you to drive for 23XI this season?”
deJong: “On my road racing stuff in the past, we’d have one scheme for the whole season. Seeing that it’s pretty much changing every race, and it’s getting debuted on iRacing before the real race (on Bubba Wallace’s No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota) has been super cool.
“To kind of have that insight, to look at it, everyone from the team has been super, super helpful and positive and welcoming. Representing a team such as this is, it’s really something special. I think that this is one of the big ones that everyone is hoping to get drafted by in the offseason. I’m super stoked to have the chance to be on that. It’s been super positive so far.”
Melillo: “Let’s say, the luck is on your side and you make it into the Championship 4 battle at Texas. How does that race go for you? Do you run it aggressively or more laid back waiting for it to fall into your hands? Would you move a competitor out of the way to win a championship?
deJong: “What I’ve learned at a couple of races this year is that it’s every man for himself out there. You kind of got to go for it when things get tough. Put your elbows out and go for it. There’s only one winner at the end of the day, so do what you have to do.
“I learned a lot spotting for Keegan last year at Texas. I think that was one of the races that took him out of the playoffs last year. I think it’s going to be super important to race aggressively, honestly. I think you need to just go for it. I don’t think there’s any chance of holding back. You just need to be there when it counts. Hopefully luck is on your side when the checkered flag comes out.”
No. 8 – Michael Conti – JR Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro
JUSTIN MELILLO: “Michael, you got that win at Daytona to open the season, but even in this win and in format, you still needed to keep up performance to utilize it. How would you rate your season to this point and why?”
MICHAEL CONTI: “I don’t think anybody could have foreseen that we’d have more winners than we have playoff spots going into the year. When we won Daytona, we were under the impression that we were basically locked in as long as we finished Top 20 in the points. With the races that came after Daytona, we were aggressive in strategy, and we were aggressive in car setup.
“I changed equipment completely about three races into the year. We started doing things much differently than we typically would if we were trying to be consistent and just gain points every race. As soon as we realized that there were a ton of winners and the playoffs spots were filling up quickly, you could almost see there was going to be more winners than there were spots, we transitioned back into what we typically do on the 8 team and we went for consistency again to make sure we could get the points built up so we weren’t in a position going into Michigan where we had to race our way back into it.
“I’d give the season a solid 7 or 8 (out of 10). I think the cars have been really good. I think most weeks, I performed pretty well. The equipment at the beginning of the year definitely threw me for a loop but we’ve gotten that under control now. If you look at the last several races, we’ve either been in contention to win or we’ve had really good speed. I think we’re building momentum going into the playoffs like we do every year. I’m confident in the team. I’m confident in my driving. I’m confident that we’ve got a really good shot to go for another championship this year.”
Melillo: “You’re the only past champion in the series whose made it back to the playoffs in 2021. What kind of pressure does that put on you, if any? Do you feel any more confident having done it before?”
Conti: “I think I’ve got a different perspective than a lot of these guys do going into the playoffs because of the championship. My position is much different. Everybody is going for their first championship, and when you’re going for your first championship, you put a lot of pressure on yourself. It feels as if you’ve got something to prove. Sometimes that pressure can get the better of you and you can honestly beat yourself.
“With having that championship under my belt and being in this series for ten seasons now, amassing wins and poles and being very successful, being very thankful for all of that, but what that does for me is it allows me to go into the playoffs and not really feel like I have to prove anything anymore. That’s really been the mantra of this year, for us and this team. We don’t have anything to prove to anybody. We’ve done what we’ve needed to do. We’ve won races in the past. We won a race this year. We’ve run well consistently at all times, and we’ve proven that we’re championship contenders pretty much every year that we’re in this deal.
“I don’t have a lot of pressure on me at this point. The pressure is on to perform well for WR1 Chassis, for JR Motorsports, but that pressure is always there. I don’t feel anything any differently going into these races, and I’m going to continue race. I’m going to continue to prepare in the same way that we would for any other race. We’re not going to change anything. We know what works and what doesn’t. We’re just going to keep doing that and hope that things fall our way.”
Melillo: “You’ve been driver 8 for JR Motorsports since these official teams moved in around 2019, but you’ve been the namesake at the Team Conti group for a number of years. You’ve got a few of those teammates in the playoffs with you, and I know I ask about every time I speak to you, but how has the team dynamic been for you this season?”
Conti: “The team has worked really well together this year. Honestly, we’ve worked well together since we all got together several years ago. I think we’re probably the longest standing core group of people that you’ll have in the series. That’s something I’m very proud of. We’ve gone through the highest of highs on this team, and we’ve gone through the lowest of lows.
“The performance hasn’t always been there, but the friendships and camaraderie and all of that has always been there, which has allowed us to push through those rough times and get to where we are now. With that being said, I think we’ve performed well this year. I think, working together this year, we’ve done better than ever. I think we’ve been more consistent than ever.
“You’ve got Logan (Clampitt) in the playoffs. You’ve got (Matt) Bussa, who put on a heck of a last-minute rebound to get into the playoffs at Michigan. Three out of four (Team Conti) cars in it, I wish Nick (Ottinger) was there, he’s worked his butt off this year, and he deserves to be there just as much as anybody else. As we’ve seen, luck plays into it. With how competitive this year was, it was really anybody’s game. Aside from that, we’re going to continue to work together throughout these playoffs.
“We’re not holding anything back from each other. We’re not keeping any secrets. We’re sharing everything we’ve got. Lap times, setups, things that work, things that don’t, it’s going to be free flow of information between the three cars in the playoffs. Nick, even though he’s not in the playoffs, he’s going to continue to help a lot too. These Team Conti guys are the best guys that I could ask for out there. I really wouldn’t want to be surrounded by anybody else but them.”
Melillo: “You’ve won at Darlington back in 2018. Do you have any of the next three races at Darlington, Bristol or Talladega circled as a must-win track?”
Conti: “I’m putting a lot of hope into Darlington, as far as getting that win and trying not to worry too much going into Bristol and Talladega. Darlington has statistically been a really good track for us, especially when we’re in the low downforce, high horsepower configuration, which we are this year again for the first time since we last won there in 2018. I think we’re going to be really strong on Tuesday. I have no clue how good everybody else is going to be.
“Everybody is going to bring their best stuff. I think if we’re going to win a race in these playoffs, based on merit and not luck, it’s going to be Darlington. Bristol was good to us last time out as well. I think we finished Top 5 there earlier last year. With Talladega, we proved earlier this year that we could win a plate race. You never know what can happen there either. I think we’ve got a good shot to get a win in one of the three races, but Darlington is definitely at the top of the list.”
Melillo: “If you make it back to the Championship 4 again this season, what is your outlook on that race as the defending Texas winner? Does that motivate you any more knowing that you might be an odds on favorite for the title in the case you advance?”
Conti: “You would think because we won at Texas last year that we’d be really excited to go back there and feel like we’ve got an advantage on the field since we won the last race at that track. When you look at that Texas race as a whole… well, I don’t want to discount what we did as a team; I don’t really want to discount what I did driving-wise, but everything that could’ve happened in our favor, happened in our favor. The strategy, the timing of the cautions, the positioning of teammates, everything.
“Literally, you could have written a script on how to win a race at Texas, we would have followed the script to a T and executed it perfectly. From a performance standpoint, Texas is not one of my favorite tracks at this point. I think we’ve run pretty consistently there, but we really haven’t had blazing speed. If you told me that we were going to Phoenix, or Martinsville, or New Hampshire or somewhere again in that 750 package, I feel like that’s more my wheelhouse and the team’s wheelhouse. I’d be really gung-ho on that.
“With it being the 550 package, I think what we need to do is just improve on the cars. We need to find a little more speed is what I’m saying. If we win at Darlington or if we win at Bristol, we’ll have extra time to prep for Texas. We can’t just sit on our hands and feel like we’re comfortable. We need to push for more because there’s definitely more to find. While it would be great to go into Texas, being the defending winner and all, there is still a lot of work to be done and we would really just have to continue to push to make sure we’re in a position to walk away with a championship.”
The first race of the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series playoffs takes place on Tuesday, 31st August at Darlington Raceway. Tune in at eNASCAR.com/live or on the iRacing social channels starting at 8:30 p.m. ET / 1:30 a.m BST for the iRacing Countdown to Green.