Michael Conti made his second visit to victory lane in the 2018 NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series, taking the checkered flag at Dover International Speedway to wrap up the first round of the playoffs. Conti led 79 of 200 laps and beat championship competitor Ryan Luza by 3.1 seconds. Fellow playoff driver Bobby Zalenski was third but failed to advance into the final four. Michael Guest finished fourth, the highest finishing non-playoff driver. Nick Ottinger rounded out the top five and he too fell just short of making the finale.
Corey Vincent captured his first pole of the season but only led 6 laps before losing the lead on pit road under the first caution flag. Zack Novak decided to stay out since only a handful of laps were run and assumed the lead. On the restart both Conti and outside polesitter Keegan Leahy got the jump on Vincent, dropping him to fourth.
Novak could only hold the lead for three laps after the restart before Leahy motored around him, bringing Conti along as well. The duo looked to check out on the field as the field strung out. The race would go green until Lap 51 when Novak got together with Timmy Hill and crashed, bringing out the second yellow flag of the evening.
The caution drew the leaders into the pits for service with Leahy’s crew holding serve, returning him to the track in the lead. Leahy looked to have the better short run car as he quickly gapped Conti on the restart. Conti, however, had the speed on the long run and by Lap 90 was filling up Leahy’s rear-view mirror. Passing Leahy proved difficult, though and Conti’s attempt was interrupted by the third and final caution flying on Lap 98 for Taylor Hurst’s crash on the backstretch.
This time Conti won the battle off pit road and took over the lead. Unlike the runs before, Conti found short run speed as well, pulling away from Leahy a few laps after the restart. Leahy would reel Conti in but started to falter again once the gap had closed. Instead of riding in Conti’s tire tracks, Leahy chose to attempt an undercut and pit on Lap 138 hoping his fresher tires would put him far enough ahead of Conti when the pit cycle completed.
Conti waited until Lap 146 to pit and emerged several seconds behind Leahy, albeit with fresher tires. He quickly closed the gap, slicing through traffic as he went. With 40 laps to go Conti had nearly erased the gap and looked to make his move. Leahy successfully held him off for a few laps by running a defensive line, but Conti’s tire advantage was too much and with 36 laps remaining he surged back in front.
From there Conti had clear sailing to his second victory as Leahy slipped all the way to eighth with his older tires.
The final four contenders are set heading into the championship race, headlined by three former series champions. Conti, with two wins and the 2014 championship under his belt comes in as the favorite with his first-round performance. However, he will face tough competition from last year’s champion Luza and three-time champion Alfalla. Matt Bussa, the underdog of the group, has his first shot at a title.
Homestead-Miami Speedway once again plays host as the finale with the champion being the driver of the four who finishes best. Conti has looked extremely strong the last couple months and seems poised to capture his second title. Can anyone stop him? Find out in two weeks as the 2018 NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series comes to a close in Homestead!