Five races ago, no one gave Tyler Hudson a chance. Now, he is champion of the 2013 NASCAR iRacing.com Series World Championship after capping a tremendous late season comeback with a firey drive to third place behind Thomas Lewandowski and first time winner Peter Bennett in the series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Seemingly out of the championship hunt after missing a round in August, Hudson completed the best five race stretch in NiSWC history and took full advantage of two-time champion Ray Alfalla’s late-season misfortunes on his way to the title.
The night at Homestead-Miami Speedway began with Alfalla starting sixth and Hudson ninth. Once the green flag flew, however, it was clear that Hudson was not only the faster of the two title contenders, but he had a potentially race-winning car. As Hudson surged forward, Alfalla gradually slipped down the order.
When the field pitted during the first yellow flag of the race, Alfalla took-on just two tires — a bold move as he was the only driver who chose to just change right sides. While the gamble enabled Alfalla to lead a few laps (and gain an all-important bonus point), those on four fresh tires behind were coming fast after the restart.
Michael Conti, who was running second after the round of pit stops, saw an opportunity to take the lead entering Turn One on Lap 23 and Alfalla did not give an inch. The two made contact and Alfalla went way up the track, almost hitting the outside wall. By the time he recovered he had fallen to sixth and had a tough road ahead since the ProGeek Ford Fusion was the only car on two tires.
Hudson, meanwhile, was just logging laps in the top three when a second caution flew on Lap 43, bringing everyone to pit road once again. Hudson lost a spot in the pits, but quickly regained the position on the restart and began hunting down Nick Ottinger for the lead.
As the green flag run went on, Alfalla realized his only chance to win the championship rested on pit strategy. He started saving fuel, hoping to stretch his mileage to the point that he would only had to make one more stop, while others — he hoped — would need two.
Hudson, on the other hand, was not saving fuel: He was going for broke. On Lap 91 he took the lead away from Ottinger but since he was not saving fuel, Hudson would need two more stops to make it to the end. But while Hudson pitted the ada SignWraps.com Fusion on Lap 101, for all his fuel saving, Alfalla only went to Lap 105 before his final stop.
As the race wound down, there were no cautions to bunch the field back together and turn this into a fuel mileage contest. Making matters worse for Alfalla, he was losing so much time saving fuel that it was apparent he would not finish ahead of many other three-stop drivers. Once Hudson completed his fourth and final stop on Lap 148 and exited the pits well clear of Alfalla, the championship was his to lose barring something extraordinary happening.
Instead the online race ran to the finish without incident, and Hudson crossed the line in third, way in front of Alfalla who could only manage fourteenth. It was enough to secure the title by a mere nine points, in what turned out to be the closest championship battle in NiSWC history.
“I drove my guts out racing with Nick . . .” — Tyler Hudson
“Let me just say ‘Hats off to Ray,’” said Hudson, who pocketed $10,000 for his first NiSWC title. “Even though he didn’t have the speed in the race, he found a way to make it work . . . it just didn’t work out. Great season as always, tough luck at the end. You’ll always be a champion.
“I knew Ray was on a strategy plan, so I thought I absolutely HAD to win the race. I drove my guts out racing with Nick and finally, the race that mattered, I think we had the absolute best car on the track. Against Nick, that’s rare . . . That car was the class of the field and to have that in the race we needed it most is a testiment to One Up Motorsports and what the guys can accomplish. It was a lot of work this week, and it paid off.
“Congrats to Peter on his first win! Enjoy it man.”
Speaking of whom . . . Lost in the championship theatrics was the performance of Bennett who adopted a fuel-saving strategy — without losing too much time — and went on to record his first career NiSWC victory. He finished 1.3 seconds ahead of Lewandowski, who was on the same strategy, with Hudson another second back. Ottinger eventually came home fourth while Chad Laughton salvaged a top five in what has been a challenging season for the 2012 NASCAR iRacing Pro Series champion.
Ottinger, who had been the fastest driver for most of the season, finished third in the championship, 47 points behind Hudson. But for some ill-timed bad luck earlier in the year, Ottinger may have had something to say about who won the title. Conti, runner-up in the title last year, was fourth overall and Brian Schoenburg completed another solid NiSWC campaign with his second consecutive fifth place finish in the standings.
For the top 20 finishers in the championship, a much needed break awaits. As for the rest, the NiPS awaits along with chance to redeem themselves over the winter and return to the 2014 NiSWC. In any case, Hudson, a NiSWC veteran who has competed in all four seasons of the series, will be savoring this one for awhile.
Congrats to the champ and we will see you at Daytona in 2014!