March 22nd, 2016 by Corey Davis
Since its radical reconfiguration five years ago, Phoenix International Raceway has earned a reputation as a track with plenty of space for racing, but also one where passing is difficult. When the ITSR Power Series visited the one-mile oval last Sunday night, drivers had to rely on tire management, pit strategy, and even a bit of luck to gain positions and go for the win.
With clouds overhead, qualifying speeds were quick, and Matt Delk showed the way with a pole-winning time of 26.586 seconds. Defending Phoenix winner Chad Dalton qualified in second place ahead of Bobby Terrell, Scott Simley, and Dean Moll.
Delk led the field of 24 sim racers to the green flag, but he couldn’t stretch out a gap over Dalton in the opening laps. A caution on Lap 9 slowed the field for the first of five times on the night, and a bit of pit strategy – and a few pit road miscues — shuffled the running order throughout the field.
Mike Kelley used a two-tire change to move from tenth to the lead while Delk exited the pits in second. Further back, early top-five runners Moll and Corey Davis suffered pit road problems – a speeding penalty and a missed pit stall, respectively – that dropped them to the rear of the field.
Over the next 30 laps, three more cautions for incidents in the middle of the pack kept the field bunched up and saw varying degrees of damage for several competitors. The race’s biggest crash came on Lap 25, when Bryan Harvey and Brad Collins made contact on the tight exit of Turn 4, collecting at least half a dozen cars in the aftermath.
Delk and Kelley traded the lead throughout the stop-and-start caution-plagued section of the race, but when the green flag came out again, a new driver found his way to the front. Simley got around Kelley on Lap 45 and stretched his lead to nearly 1.5 seconds over the next 20 laps as the race entered a prolonged run of green-flag online racing.
During this long run, tire management proved a key factor, and Simley saw his advantage evaporate by the time he pitted on Lap 81. While most of the front runners followed Simley’s lead into the pits, Delk and Moll stayed on track, saving fuel in hopes of making it to the finish with just one more pit stop.
That fuel-saving and extra laps on worn tires cost them both more than a second each lap to the cars on fresh tires, and it dropped them outside the top ten after they pitted. Meanwhile, Tim Johnston inherited the top spot for the first time all night as he and second-place Simley approached their final green-flag stops of the race.
With 30 laps remaining in the 150-lap race, all scheduled pit stops were complete and three different strategies played out among the leaders. Delk and Moll held the top two positions but continued to stretch their fuel and their tires. Johnston and Simley closed the gap on four fresh tires, and Dalton used a two-tire stop to move into fifth place.
With five laps to go, the race appeared to be heading for a tight battle up front, as Johnston had closed to within two seconds of Delk. However, a spin by David Boden brought out the caution and set up an apparent one-lap shootout to decide the win.
Drivers and their teams opted for a mixed bag of pit strategies. Johnston and Dalton stayed on track to move onto the front row, while Moll lined up in third after a two-tire change. Delk, Simley, and the rest of the nine lead-lap cars all took four tires, hoping to work some last-lap magic.
However, hopes for a thrilling conclusion were dashed when a car stopped on the apron with electrical problems, delaying the green and enabling Johnston take the checkered flag under the extended yellow.
The win was Johnston’s second of the season and series-leading 33rd all time. Johnston also closed to just 12 points behind championship leader Kelley, who hit the Turn-2 wall on Lap 98 and failed to finish for the first time all season.
The Power Series’ western road trip continues in two weeks with a day/night doubleheader at the Auto Club Speedway. As the real-world NASCAR drivers saw last weekend, tire management and fuel saving may be deciding factors at the bumpy California oval, so the Phoenix preparations might pay off for the Power Series competitors in both Fontana races.