The Winter Heat Series on NASCAR Heat 5 wrapped up with the Valentine’s 80 at virtual Daytona International Speedway as part of the big Daytona 500 weekend on Friday night, 12th February 2021.
Although the event took place virtually, 28 drivers in total competed across the Xbox and PlayStation platforms for their chance at a $20,000 prize pool and the opportunity to be named Winter Heat Series champion.
Drivers had to earn their positions in the Valentine’s 80 either by advancing through one of the three previous Winter Heat Series events – Movember 50, Holiday 60 or New Year Resolution 70 – or through the open qualifier system. Unlike the previous three WHS events, only the top five drivers on Xbox and PlayStation would advance through the open qualifiers.
In the end, a wild night of racing saw Ganassi Gaming’s Luis Zaiter and open driver Chase Williamson taking home the wins on Xbox and PlayStation, respectively, in dramatic and thrilling fashion. Both drivers took home a total of $4,000 for their efforts.
Xbox: Drama Between Buttafuoco & Brooks Allows Zaiter to Capitalize
Jeff Noe qualified on the pole for the Xbox event after securing his position in the race through the open qualifier rounds. The open driver was a staple in the Movember 50 and Holiday 60 events, dressing in costume to match the theme, but for the championship race, he was all business.
The driver hoping to turn the heads of eNASCAR Heat Pro League teams kept his car in front of the field for the majority of the race, leading a total of 16 laps.
As the field cycled through green flag pit stops, an incident during the final series of stops brought out the caution flag and regrouped the field for a final seven-lap shootout.
Two of the sport’s top contenders, JTG Daughtery Throttlers Justin Brooks and Season 2 eNHPL champion Daniel Buttafuoco, continued their heated rivalry from the Pro League championship over into the Winter Heat Series.
On the restart with seven laps to go, Brooks got a huge run on the outside line and looked to make a move to go to the front of the field. Seeing the run coming in his mirror, Buttafuoco threw an ill-timed block that sent Brooks hard into the wall, into another car and to the back of the field, resulting in the final caution of the race.
With Brooks out of the picture, Zaiter got a great restart on the bottom row and Buttafuoco faded on the top side. Leading a total of six laps on the evening, the former eNHPL winner
“It will probably set in here in a few minutes after the interview,” Zaiter told the Winter Heat Series broadcast team after becoming the Xbox champion. “It was hectic. I just tried to be smart throughout the entire race, did that, got a few cautions that fell our way and was able to bring it home.”
Zaiter was the only eNHPL driver to finish inside the top five, as Justin Anasogak, Jordan Bane, Noe and Tom Flitcroft followed him across the line.
PS4: Chase Williamson Uses Late-Race Push to Take Winter Heat Series Title
Zaiter’s eNHPL teammate Maxwell Castro started the PS4 race from the pole, hoping to earn his third victory of the Winter Heat Series and the title of champion. For much the event, that is where he remained.
Despite multiple attempts by Team Penske eSports driver Corey Rothgeb, the majority of the field was content to stay in a single-file lane around the bottom and hold position until late in the race.
Varying pit strategies split the field in half as one group came to pit road early, while the second – led by Williamson – remained on the track. Just as the second group was leaving pit road with 15 laps to go, a caution bunched the two groups up and set up a 12-lap shootout.
Open driver Grant Salzano led the field back to green, with Scott Brown, Rothgeb and Joey Stone leading the charge and applying the pressure from behind. Brown and Rothgeb were eventually pushed to the outside line and with no help behind them to keep pace fell through the field.
That allowed Stone and Castro to line up behind Salzano, with Williamson and eNHPL Season 2 veteran Jason Mitchell riding in fifth. With the least esports event experience in the field, Salzano did his best to hold off four of the best on NASCAR Heat 5.
Stone and Castro laid back to get a big charge on Salzano down the backstretch, but when the leader threw a block to slow Stone’s charge, Williamson and Mitchell took the opportunity to pounce. Jumping on the outside with help from Isaac Smallwood and Cody Giles, Williamson took the lead doing down the backstretch.
With one lap to go, Stone slowed the second pack up enough to build momentum to make his move down the backstretch. With help from Castro and others, Stone mimicked the move that cost him the lead just a handful of laps earlier.
Through the final corners, Stone and Williamson made slight side-by-side contact sending Stone up the track and ruining all of his momentum. This allowed Williamson and Mitchell to push ahead, giving Williamson the victory and title of Winter Heat Series champion.
“I knew that I had my buddy Jason … he told me before the race that if it came down to it, he would stick with me,” Williamson said after his win. “I looked back down the back straightaway and saw (Stone) and about eight of them back up and I thought, ‘Oh Lord, here we go, I’ve got to hold my line and hope Jason can get me to the start-finish line first. (Stone) got up beside me and I just tried to hold it down there and not hit him. I think they got broke up on the top lane, held it off and Jason and I finished one-two.”
The young driver’s message to potential teams ahead of the next eNHPL season?
“I just like to win. It’s either checkers or wreckers for me every weekend. I just want to win,” he said.