On Tuesday night, the first round of the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series playoffs came to a dramatic end at Darlington Raceway. A battle of differing strategies came down to a second overtime restart. When the smoke cleared, it was Bobby Zalenski who held off a dominant Mitchell deJong to score the victory.
As long as he’s been around the iRacing service. many forget that deJong in his first season in the series. This is the first opportunity we’ve gotten to see these two Coanda Simsport teammates battle at the highest level of eNASCAR racing. When we’ve talked about these two drivers in particular, it’s been during the three road races on the calendar at Circuit of the Americas, Road America and Watkins Glen.
Before deJong joined the roster this season, Zalenski had a four-year winning streak at every road course on the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series calendar. Last season, deJong was a spotter for Keegan Leahy.
The road score in 2021 wound up as two wins to deJong and none for Zalenski, as Graham Bowlin stole the show at the Glen. Zalenski, on the other hand, punched his ticket into the playoffs with a clutch victory at the Tricky Triangle, Pocono Raceway, during the regular season.
Entering the playoffs against eight other hopefuls looking to make their way to the Championship 4 battle at Texas, both Zalenski and deJong were arguably on the longshot side of the bracket. There aren’t any road course races in the playoffs this year, the first time since 2017, Zalenski’s rookie season.
With races at Darlington, Bristol and Talladega deciding the four drivers racing for the 2021 title, neither driver had the track record against the others that would scream advancement out of the Round of 10.
However, after Darlington, Zalenski is locked in with the win and deJong leads the rest of the playoff contenders in points. Their oval-specialist teammate Leahy sits at the bottom of the playoff standings after a rough pair of eNASCAR Overtime restarts.
Arguably, not many saw this coming. Now at least one of the road ringers will be fighting for a title with the other in the best spot possible without a Round of 10 win.
ZALENSKI PLAYS THE STRATEGY CARD TO PERFECTION
For most of the race, it was the Mitchell deJong show. The caution flag flew and brought the field down pit road for the third time on the night with about 75 laps to go. It was then when the plans were hatched that shook up the running order by the end of the race.
“When I pitted and I knew it was going to be a 72-lap run to the end, I was like ‘let’s try to make this,’” Zalenski said. “Straight away from lap one, I was clutching into (Turn) 1. You just hold so much speed in the draft into (Turn) 1, you can back it way up. I was even doing it into (Turn) 3 sometimes… I made that decision right away.”
Even with the strategy in play, it wasn’t any walk in the park. There were others on the same strategy, such as Ryan Luza. When the cycle started, Luza was ahead of Zalenski by quite a margin. They both needed to save the same amount of fuel to make it.
Unfortunately for Luza, with staying out on older tires, those with newer tires had to fight to recover lost time. Playoff driver Vicente Salas was on the split it and pit strategy, and in trying to get back on the lead lap, the two made contact. Luza saved it, but the contact wound up handing the lead over to Zalenski.
“I was just saving behind Luza, trying to use his draft,” Zalenski said. “He got checked up really hard and I said ‘screw it,’ I want the lead. If a caution comes out, I’m the leader, and that’s really important here. I felt like I probably did a better job than the rest of the field saving until that point. I just went for it.
DEJONG DOMINATES BUT COMES UP SHORT
“Honestly, I’m so stoked on how we performed,” deJong said. Statistically speaking, Darlington Raceway was deJong’s best oval racing in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series to date. The general excitement after the race was absolutely warranted, despite not turning up in victory lane.
Before Darlington, deJong only had three oval Top 10 finishes in the entirety of the 11-oval races in the regular season. His best finish was third at Pocono, a race also won by Zalenski. He led laps at Daytona and Atlanta after winning the pole position in those races, but he also didn’t finish in the Top 10 in either race.
This time was different. Like his eNASCAR Road to Pro Challenger Series win at Auto Club during the offseason, it looked like deJong had a gear up on the rest of the field.
“I felt like this was our best chance,” deJong said. “It was the best oval race I’ve had. I’m happy it’s now, of all times when we’re in the playoffs, that we’re starting to figure it out. I really do feel like maybe we do know how to do this a little bit.”
From the pole position, deJong led 120 laps on the night. He passed drivers like Leahy and 2020 eNASCAR Champion Nick Ottinger to put himself in the top spot. When he was out front, he was pulling away. The 23XI Racing rookie was fastest in qualifying and ran the fastest lap during the race. It looked like deJong would be untouchable.
Of course, nothing is that simple. With the late cautions and a teammate on what may have been a similar setup in front, deJong couldn’t get back to the top spot and came home second.
ZALENSKI LOCKED; DEJONG NINE POINTS UP ENTERING BRISTOL
Zalenski can breathe easily for the next two races. For deJong, however, points racing is on the table. At least one spot will go to someone on points. While deJong really wants that first oval win, he knows that he can’t throw away the points advantage he has.
“I would say that I would really like to get that win, to have that safety,” deJong said. “If I’m able to make it on points as well, that would be fantastic. No complaints with that.”
While an alternate strategy put his Coanda Simsport teammate ahead of him at the end of the day, deJong feels like losing out on the win to Zalenski changes his approach for the final two races in the Round of 10.
“I don’t think anything really changes,” deJong said. “Maybe we don’t go for the high-risk strategies where you get a Top 5 out of a fuel strat kind of finish, or you finish 30th. I don’t think we should do any of that stuff. The plan is to try and point your way in, but we’re still going for that win.”
Zalenski, on the other hand, still wants to get his teammates deJong and Leahy through to the next round. While he has nothing to worry about for his own championship hopes, testing and execution is still very much important at Bristol and Talladega.
“I would be a bad teammate if I let up testing now,” Zalenski said. “Honestly, I wasn’t even able to test that much last week. I just want to help them get in. I wasn’t that great today as a driver but I had a really great car. You could see that Keegan and Mitchell were dominating. They pretty much deserved to get a 1-2 today.”
The two drivers, together with Leahy and their other teammate Chris Shearburn, are looking forward to the next race of the playoffs at Bristol Motor Speedway. The coverage on 14th September starts live at 8:30 p.m. ET for the iRacing Countdown to Green. Check out the broadcast at eNASCAR.com or on the iRacing social channels.