From the silky smooth high banks of Daytona to the teeth-rattling bumps in Kentucky, the ITSR Power Series continued its Season Ten trek with the 250-mile Marcus Napier Sr. Memorial under the lights at the Kentucky Speedway.
Before the race, the Fast 5 qualifying session gave the top five qualifiers an extra five minutes to improve their lap times. Looking to bounce back after an early wreck at Daytona, Chad Dalton laid down a blistering lap of 29.854 seconds early in the qualifying session and it held up to give him the pole position. Matt Delk, Tim Johnston, David Boden and Mike Rominger rounded-out the top five starting positions in the 33-car grid.
Once the green flag waved, it didn’t stay out for long. Two cautions in the first ten laps put the field back behind the pace car. The race then ran another ten laps under green before the third yellow flag flew.
The early laps saw problems strike the top two finishers from Daytona. Runner-up Corey Davis lost control out of Turn 4 and pinballed off Kevin Stone’s car into the outside wall. Shortly after that, Daytona winner Mike Kelley hit the Turn 4 SAFER barrier after contact with Scott Simley, forcing him behind the wall for extensive repairs.
After the opening incidents were out of the way, the race settled into a long green-flag run. Polesitter Dalton fell back to fourth place while series rookies Matt Delk and Daniel E. Eberhardt spent time in the lead. But after the first round of green-flag pit stops wrapped-up on Lap 64, a pair of familiar faces took over. Johnston and Dalton, who dueled for the season-opening wins at Michigan and Las Vegas, found themselves out front once again.
The bumpy Kentucky track surface and a tight setup helped spread out the field, and the pair of Toyotas in front opened up a big lead over their competitors. Dalton passed Johnston for the lead on Lap 81 and, thanks to a sweet-handling car and an early pit stop to open the next cycle of green-flag stops, he stretched his lead to nearly seven seconds before the next caution flew on Lap 117.
After the restart, Dalton again began pulling away, but the race’s fifth and final yellow flag on Lap 128 bunched the field back together one last time. Under this caution, a two-tire call by Marcus Napier put him in the lead in the race named for his father.
Fuel strategy was a major concern for the sim racers under this caution, as the yellow fell right on the edge of a window to make it to the finish. Before the restart, Johnston gave up third place to top off with fuel, putting him back to 11th as the last car on the lead lap.
Dalton grabbed the lead from Napier at the green and began saving fuel to ensure he could make it to the finish. That opened the door for Rominger to pass for the lead on Lap 141. Dalton drafted-off Rominger and continued saving fuel before reclaiming the top spot with ten laps to go.
Those two drivers continued to trade the lead as the laps wound down, enabling Simley and Delk to join the lead battle and make it a four horse race in Kentucky. Despite the stiff challenge from behind and a fuel tank running low, there was no denying Dalton on this night, and he held on to take his first win of the season and his first in the series since winning at Texas last October.
After the race, Dalton noted that his strategy to save fuel early in the final stint then charge hard to the checkers worked as he hoped. “I love it when a plan comes together,” he said.
Dalton came home half a second ahead of Rominger and Simley, while Delk and Rick Thompson rounded out the top five. The rest of the top ten finishers included Brian Motisko, Kevin Linden, Jeff Gilmore, Matt Murphy, and Johnston.
Mike Kelley’s fading fortunes in Kentucky meant a new points leader emerged after the race. With four top-five finishes in as many races to begin Season Ten, Simley took over atop the standings, with Johnston, Motisko, Kelley and Dalton all within 20 points of the lead.
The series next heads from Bluegrass to Brickyard. In recent seasons, champions have reigned at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as the last three series titlists – Johnston, Davis, and Kyle Taraska – all have wins on the 2.5-mile oval. After 100 laps of sim racing at Indy next week, we’ll see if this season’s title favorite will emerge with a victory.