Week Sixteen of the NASCAR iRacing Pro Series took the drivers out west to Phoenix International Raceway for the first time this season. With only three weeks left until the end of the season, drivers on the bubble of qualifying for the 2011 NASCAR iRacing Series World Championship needed to keep their noses clean, while still earning as many points as possible.
The online racing action kicked-off Wednesday night with two splits of 18 sim racers each. The first of the two races saw two drivers dominate the action. The first half of the race was paced by Ray Alfalla, but Thomas Hazard made sure he was good when it counted, dominating the second half of the race on his way to victory over Mitchell Hunt, Tyler Hudson, Alfalla and Justin Lowery. Steve Sheehan placed a respectable sixth in his only start of the week, picking up an important 225 points in his quest to make the top twenty.
The other Wednesday race also had two dominant drivers, Josh Berry and Daniel Pope with Berry getting the best of Pope on pit strategy, winning by over two seconds in a race that featured only two caution flags and long green flag runs.
“Had another good car tonight,” Berry explained. “I spent the first half of the race chasing Daniel around. We had green flag stops with about 50 to go.
I decided to short pit him and attempt to leap frog him in the pits and let him chase me, and it was able to work.”
Pope settled for second at the checkers followed by Richie Davidowitz, Brad Wright and Henrik Carlsson.
Friday again went without an official race, but Saturday more than made up for it with most of the “bubble” drivers taking part in the action. Like Wednesday there were two splits, this time of sixteen and seventeen drivers. In the first race Alfalla, who already had a fourth on the week, totally destroyed the field, leading 112 of the 130 laps. Brian Schoenburg finished second with Byron Daley third. Bubble driver Josh Connors came home fourth, and with his 249 points on the week now sits twelfth in the NiPS standings. Ben Sexton made a great comeback to finish fifth after spinning on the first lap and sustaining some damage. He now sits on the bubble in twentieth position in the overall standings.
In Saturday’s second race, Pope was so dominant there was not a single lead change. Pope led all 130 laps in a narrow victory over Brad Davies. Justin Trombley came home third, with Jameson Spies fourth. Greg Spears, another bubble driver, finished fifth and now sits just a single point out of the top twenty in a close race that is surely to come down to the last race of the season.
Sunday was the last chance for the “bubble boys” to have a strong showing, and the last chance to score a coveted NiPS win at Phoenix. The race drew 29 drivers, all in one split and with that many drivers on the track, anything is possible. Schoenburg and Hunt led the majority of the race, but the big moment happened back in the field on a restart on Lap 58. The pack stacked up coming to the green, triggering a massive crash that completely blocked the front straightaway and destroyed several drivers’ chances to win, or even finish. In the end, Schoenburg scored the win.
Enthusiastic as always, Schoenburg detailed his winning move: “For the second time in two weeks, I’m really happy I ran the Sunday race. Started second and tried to follow Mitchell’s tire tracks for the first part of the race. His car looked really good. Caution came out with about 45 to go, and for the second time in two weeks…
My pit crew got me the clean air, and that’s all there was to it.”
Hunt finished second with Charles Cosper, Carlsson, and Pedro Mojica rounding out the top five. A good portion of the rest of the field looked more suitable for a junkyard than a racetrack and for some drivers, the bad break really hurt. Three bubble drivers looking for good finishes — Jon Adams, Rick Savage and Jean Costa — all were caught up in trouble and finished well down in the running order.
Next up on the schedule is the dreaded Talladega Superspeedway. Qualifying and executing green flag pit stops will mean everything as the NiPS aero package really does not allow for much passing on the race track, especially for the lead. For the bubble drivers, this is a make or break week. Do well, and a place in the NiSWC is waiting. Get in the Big One, and it is going to be one long offseason.