The first ticket to the 2021 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series Championship 4 has been punched. Bobby Zalenski utilized an alternate strategy, survived a pair of eNASCAR Overtime restarts and held off the dominant Mitchell deJong to win at Darlington Raceway on Tuesday night.
With 72 laps to go, the differing strategies began to unfold. Some drivers saw their path with another pit stop while others attempted to stretch it the rest of the way. Zalenski and others would make it last while deJong and others worked their way back to the top. The strategies clashed with only a handful of laps to go. That, of course, is when the caution flag flew.
With everyone on the same strategy on the final restart, Zalenski held on for his second win of the 2021 season, the 10th of his career. The Darlington victory solidifies Zalenski and his LETARTE Esports No. 83 in the Championship 4 battle at Texas Motor Speedway on 12th October.
“THEY HAD US IN THE FIRST HALF…”
With deJong claiming his fifth pole position of the season, more than any other driver, the question remained whether he could capitalize on it and conquer the oval circuit. deJong was quick, and was able to lead early and often during the first half of the race.
The race had a green feel to it, as cautions were non-existent before halfway. The first round of pitstops came around lap 55 to 60. deJong’s 23XI Racing teammate Keegan Leahy opted for the undercut. It seemed to work at first, but eventually deJong caught and passed his teammate, pulling away almost instantly.
Nick Ottinger looked to have the second-best pace on the night. He passed Leahy but a caution flew just moments after that for an incident involving playoff driver Bob Bryant and Taylor Hurst. After yellow flag pitstops, Leahy moved back into the runner up position.
Another yellow hindered the flow when Ashton Crowder and Zalenski made contact, sending the No. 1 Sadler Esports driver towards the inside wall. When they got the restart, it was right on the edge of a full fuel run.
STRATEGY CALLS CLASH IN CLOSING LAPS
For drivers like Zalenski and Casey Kirwan, the choice was easy as the field worked the second caution period. Full fuel runs could last about 70 laps, and the final run to the flag would be 72 if it stayed green. Drivers immediately started hedging their bets with either going hard or holding some back.
The ones pitting would split the final run in half. This time, Ottinger opted for the undercut and it worked for him as well. As the duo of Ottinger and deJong caught Dylan Duval, a car trying to make it without stopping, deJong got a monster run off of the corner, passing Ottinger and Duval three-wide into Turn 3.
The laps continued to wind down from there. deJong and Ottinger were able to make it up to the Top 5 but still had the likes of Zalenski and the XSET teammates of Ryan Luza and Casey Kirwan to get through. Kirwan let the pair by without hesitation as his fuel saving strategy was still in plat. As deJong worked on passing Luza for second, the third caution flew for an incident involving Brad Davies and Garrett Manes.
Malik Ray almost threw a wrench in the plans of many when he opted to stay out on ancient tires and led the field back to green in the first eNASCAR Overtime attempt. As he slipped coming up to speed, Zalenski was actually given a black flag by the game. It was cleared, as Ray was unable to maintain his speed accelerating to the line.
Zalenski and deJong took the field back to green for the final time. On the final lap, deJong stuck it in on the final corner. deJong couldn’t make it stick and Zalenski took home another victory.
ENASCAR PLAYOFF OUTLOOK AFTER RACE #1
With Zalenski locked in, only three tickets remain for the Championship 4 race at Texas Motor Speedway. The next event takes place at Bristol Motor Speedway while the round finishes at Talladega Superspeedway. With his runner up finish, deJong has the best points entering Bristol, nine points above the cut line. Jimmy Mullis and Matt Bussa are also on the right side of the points, but just barely over Logan Clampitt.
A win moves that line down, so even for someone like Leahy who ended up 34th at Darlington, their playoff hopes aren’t dead just yet. Bristol will only make its fifth appearance on the eNCCiS calendar in two weeks. No current playoff driver has ever won at The Last Great Coliseum.
TOP 10 RESULTS AT DARLINGTON
- 83 Bobby Zalenski – LETARTE Esports – 189 LAPS
- 23 Mitchell deJong – 23XI Racing +0.136 sec
- 38 Casey Kirwan – XSET Gaming +0.488 sec
- 4 Ryan Luza – XSET Gaming +0.822 sec
- 46 Jimmy Mullis – Richmond Raceway Esports +0.948 sec
- 25 Nick Ottinger – William Byron Esports +1.198 sec
- 75 Matt Bussa – MODE Motorsports +1.410 sec
- 97 Logan Clampitt – William Byron Esports +1.544 sec
- 55 Vicente Salas – Spacestation Gaming +1.863 sec
- 66 Blake Reynolds – McLaren Shadow +2.075 sec
PLAYOFF STANDINGS AFTER DARLINGTON
- 83 Bobby Zalenski – LETARTE Esports – LOCKED, 1 win
- 23 Mitchell deJong – 23XI Racing +9 points
- 46 Jimmy Mullis – Richmond Raceway Esports +3 points
- 75 Matt Bussa – MODE Motorsports +1 point
- 97 Logan Clampitt – William Byron Esports -1 point
- 55 Vicente Salas – Spacestation Gaming -2 points
- 8 Michael Conti – JR Motorsports -4 points
- 10 Graham A. Bowlin – Stewart-Haas Esports -6 points
- 77 Bob Bryant – Kligerman Sport -9 points
- 32 Keegan Leahy – 23XI Racing -27 points
TOP 10 TEAM STANDINGS AFTER DARLINGTON
- 23XI Racing (23, 32) – 697 points | 3 wins
- Stewart-Haas Esports (10, 41) – 635 points | 1 win
- XSET Gaming (4, 38) – 632 points | 1 win
- William Byron Esports (25, 97) – 628 points | 1 win
- Richmond Raceway Esports (46, 90) – 608 points | 1 win
- LETARTE Esports (36, 83) – 601 points | 3 wins
- MODE Motorsports (24, 75) – 564 points | 1 win
- Kligerman Sport (44, 77) – 558 points | 1 win
- JR Motorsports (8, 88) – 555 points | 1 win
- Team Dillon Esports (3, 33) – 527 points
LEAD CHANGES: 14 among 10 drivers
LAP LEADERS: Mitchell deJong (120), Bobby Zalenski (33), Keegan Leahy (11), Logan Clampitt (7), Ryan Luza (6), Casey Kirwan (5), Michael Conti (2), Ray Alfalla (2), Malik Ray (2), Caine Cook (1)
BEST LAP: Mitchell deJong – 28.285 secs
FOUR Cautions for 16 Laps