August 28th, 2019 by Jason Lofing
Burton Kligerman eSports’ Ashton Crowder became the latest first-time winner in the eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series, hanging on for an impressive victory at Darlington Raceway. Crowder inherited the lead after a caution during the last round of green flag pit stops and held off the charging Roush Fenway Racing Ford of Zack Novak over the final 14 laps to earn the win.
Novak, who restarted seventh with 14 to go, masterfully drove up to second and showed great short-run speed but ran out of laps and had to settle as runner-up. Benjamin Nelson brought his Team Dillon eSports ride home third and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Jake Nichols was fourth. G2 eSports’ Keegan Leahy had the dominant car once again, but came home fifth after being on the wrong end of the cautions and lacking race-winning speed on the short run.
Crowder, who had been running around the back half of the top 10 with good long-run speed, took the lead by playing a different strategy than the front runners. He stayed out longer on old tires on the last long run while the leaders headed to pit road for fresh rubber. With his fuel running low, Crowder hoped a timely caution would trap drivers a lap down and give him track position, and he got his wish on Lap 154, just as Leahy unlapped himself. Novak also returned to the lead lap, the beneficiary of the free pass.
The yellow brought all 10 lead-lap cars to the pits, with Crowder winning the race off pit road. On the restart, another crash two laps later slowed the pace once again and allowed all the wave around cars to pit for tires. Then, on Lap 165, chaos erupted when Cody Byus turned Nickolas Shelton exiting Turn 4. The carnage blocked the entire groove, sparking a massive crash involving nearly half the field that resulted in Ray Alfalla flipping wildly down the frontstretch. It marked the end of another disappointing race for the four-time and defending series champion, and Alfalla now sits 20th in points, on the bubble to qualify for the 2020 series.
Michael Conti won the pole and looked to get his playoffs off to a fast start, but Leahy spoiled his party, taking the lead at the drop of the green flag. Leahy held the lead until a Lap 17 caution brought the whole field in for tires and fuel. Shelton won the race off pit road and showed some impressive speed in clean air once the race resumed.
Shelton held the lead until Lap 46 before Leahy returned to the front. Leahy had unmatched long run speed, turning in lap times nearly two-tenths better than anyone else in the field on most laps. With the huge advantage in pace, Leahy began to build a gap, but had a near disaster on Lap 61 when he made contact with Garrett Lowe, sending Leahy for a slide. Though most of his gap was erased, Leahy hung onto the car and continued unscathed.
A caution on Lap 78 during green flag stops threatened to spoil Leahy’s drive at the front, but he had already unlapped himself and was back in front on the Lap 84 restart. From there he was unchallenged at the front until the untimely Lap 154 caution that gave Crowder the lead.
Novak, with his late surge to a second-place finish, leads the championship with two races remaining before the field of eight is cut in half for the finale. He is five points ahead of Leahy and 19 ahead of Conti, who found himself outside the top 20 late before avoiding the Lap 165 crash to salvage a ninth place finish. Ryan Luza found trouble but hangs onto the fourth and final provisional spot in the finale, two points ahead of Lowe.
Though Crowder’s win did not allow a playoff driver to lock themselves into the finale, Leahy must feel confidence in his speed as the series heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the second race of the playoffs. Nobody has seemed to have an answer for Leahy over the past month, and if he can put a race together and have a little luck on his side, he looks to be the clear favorite heading in. Can another championship contender prevent Leahy from locking himself in, or will a non-playoff driver crash the party once again? Find out as the playoff battle rages on in two weeks on the iRacing eSports Network!