June 16th, 2016 by Corey Davis
Five months ago, the ITSR Power Series arrived at iRacing’s laser-scanned replica of Michigan International Speedway to begin its eleventh season. In that mid-winter race, the weather was cool and the cars’ high downforce package kept them practically glued to the track.
After 17 races to decide the Season 11 championship, the Power Series returned to Michigan last Sunday to begin its twelfth season of online racing competition. This time, warm weather and a slick track greeted the 23 sim racers who made the trek to Michigan, and the 2016-spec low downforce package meant the cars were slipping and sliding all over the wide asphalt surface.
The first race of the new season presented an opportunity to take an early advantage in the championship fight, and for four-time series champion Tim Johnston, that opportunity arose in qualifying.
Johnston circulated the two-mile circuit at an average speed of 183.5 mph to take the pole position. Bobby Terrell qualified in second, followed by defending series champion Corey Davis. Brad Collins lined up in fourth place and Terry McCuin started fifth for the 94-lap race.
As those drivers took to the starting grid, Season 11 championship runner-up Mike Kelley was left sitting in his pit stall. Electrical issues sidelined his #80 car for the start of the race, so Kelley joined the back of the field after the green flag waved.
As the early laps ticked off, Kelley ran in last place nearly half a lap behind the race leader. His hopes for a quick caution went unanswered, with the race remaining under green as it passed the one-quarter mark.
On Lap 28, Kelley hit pit road to kick-off the first round of green-flag pit stops. However, in an ironic twist, the caution then came out exactly when he didn’t need one. That trapped Kelley one lap down and dropped him back down the scoring pylon.
The timing of the caution also created a problem for one of the race leaders. The yellow flag waved as Johnston was about to pit, which forced him to make one more lap before pit road opened. As the field caught the pace car, Johnston sputtered on fuel and needed a push to make it to the pits.
Corey Davis, who passed Johnston for the lead just before the caution, held the top spot on the restart with Terrell alongside. While those two held station up front, Kelley began a slow climb back through the field, from 15th on the restart into the top ten by the halfway point of the race.
While Kelley recovered, more trouble hit Johnston on Lap 49. He was caught up in a crash with Dean Moll and Rick Thompson, and the damage ultimately sent his #54 car behind the wall for repairs.
Under that caution, the field again hit pit road, with Terrell taking the lead from Davis thanks to a speedy pit stop. Restarting just behind Terrell was a surprising newcomer to the front of the field: Aided by the crash ahead of him and a fast stop of his own, Kelley finally found his way inside the top five. During the next green-flag run, Kelley caught Terrell and passed him for the lead, completing his back-to-front journey in the race.
Another set of green-flag stops began on Lap 72, and Kelley’s pit crew was on their game once again, giving him a nearly three-second lead over the second-place battle between Terrell, Davis and Scott Simley.
As the race entered the final 20 laps, Kelley appeared well on his way to victory. However, another caution with 12 laps to go erased his lead and brought the field back to pit road. This time, Kelley’s pit stop was decidedly more sluggish and Davis came away with the race lead.
The following restart saw an exciting battle up front, with Kelley overcoming the race-long disadvantage of restarting in the outside lane to take back the lead. However, even that pass didn’t seal the win, as a final caution slowed the field one more time and set up a four-lap shootout for the win.
Not to be denied, Kelley held the lead and crossed the finish line 0.181 seconds ahead of Davis to score the race win. Terrell was third, followed by Collins and Simley. Eleven cars finished on the lead lap.
Kelley’s dramatic comeback put him atop the standings after the first race of the season, and he has a chance to increase his points lead in the next race. From one wide race track to another, the Power Series now heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway – a venue where Kelley won in season seven.
Even though that race was with a different aero package, a different tire, and different weather, if the Michigan win by series veteran Kelley proved anything, it’s that the more some things change, the more they often stay the same.