August 4th, 2016 by Corey Davis
For the drivers of the ITSR Power Series, last Sunday brought a pair of races at the Phoenix International Raceway. The day-and-night doubleheader meant two chances for successful races, but with a slick track and some wild restarts, it also meant two chances to get things wrong, even for the frontrunners.
The daytime half of the doubleheader presented the drivers with a hot, slick track baking in the virtual Valley of the Sun. For the third straight week, it was Corey Davis who scored the pole position with a lap of 27.998 seconds. He edged out Marcus Napier, Mike Kelley, Tim Johnston, and Scott Simley in the starting field of 16 sim racers.
Despite the tricky track conditions, the race was clean and green in the early laps. Davis opened up a one-second lead over Kelley while the field settled in mostly single file behind them, looking to find a rhythm around the one-mile oval.
After 15 laps under the green flag, the first caution finally came out on Lap 16 as Tom Emasie hit the Turn-3 wall and collected Adam Hallock in the process. That sent those two cars to the garage and brought the rest of the field to pit road for the first stops of the day.
Davis led the field out of the pits and back to the green flag, but on the restart, he faced a stiffer challenge from Kelley, who took the lead on Lap 22. Kelley held that position until the next yellow flag waved on Lap 28, but a new leader – Johnston – emerged after the next round of pit stops. In newfound clean air up front, Johnston held the lead through the short green-flag run that followed.
The race’s third caution with 15 laps to go brought a mixed pit strategy that saw Brad Collins stay out to inherit the lead, James Coulibaly take two tires to move up to the front row, and Johnston slip to third ahead of fellow four-tire takers David Boden, Kelley, and Simley.
With the laps winding down, the online racing action heated up on the restart that followed. A three-wide battle entering Turn 1 between Boden, Napier, and Davis resulted in contact that sent all three cars sideways. However, they were each able to recover and the race stayed under green.
As Napier tried to work back through the field a few laps later, he spun exiting Turn 4, which brought out the race’s fourth and final caution. A split strategy saw the top seven cars, led by Johnston, stay out while everyone from eighth-place Davis on back hit pit road for fresh tires to help them mount a late-race comeback.
The final restart with three laps remaining delivered some of the closest and craziest racing of the entire doubleheader event. Up front, Kelley and Johnston dueled side-by-side for the lead. Behind them, the field battled four-wide down the frontstretch and three-wide down the back as drivers on old tires faded and those on fresh rubber moved forward.
On the final lap, Kelley held the lead but Johnston took a final shot at the win, shortcutting the dogleg to try to close the gap. However, the transition back onto the banking upset Johnston’s car, sending it into the wall and leaving the field scattering behind him to avoid the crash.
With his closest threat in the wall, Kelley cruised through the final two corners to score his second race win of the season. After quiet but effective races, Simley and Boden came home second and third while Coulibaly edged Davis for fourth place.
Between races, Kelley celebrated while Johnston’s team unloaded a backup car for 60 laps of nighttime racing at Phoenix. Napier, who also spun in the daytime race, recovered in the qualifying session under the lights to earn the pole position ahead of Kelley, Davis, Johnston, and John Hensley.
With plenty of extra grip available, the drivers had no need to tiptoe around Phoenix when the green flag waved to start the second race of the day. The opening laps were frantic, with Napier, Davis, and Kelley trading the lead and some paint as they battled two- and three-wide.
On Lap 3, Kelley opened up a two car-length lead, but he drove too deep into Turn 3 and hit the outside wall while the field streamed past. The damage sent him to the garage for repairs and ended his chance of sweeping the pair of sprint races.
Pit strategy was the name of the game throughout the nighttime race, and the first drivers to gamble were Adam Hallock and Brad Collins, who stayed out under caution while the leaders hit pit road. Johnston made quick work of those two on the restart and extended his lead to nearly a second before the race’s second caution flag waved on Lap 13.
That began a stop-and-start middle segment of the race that saw six cautions – part of a race total of eight – due to close racing and contact throughout the field. The only constant was Johnston’s #54 Camry out front, and the clear track around him seemed to be the only safe space on the race track.
For Johnston, the riskiest move of the race was likely staying on track when the yellow flag waved with ten laps to go. Although his tires only had five laps worth of wear, cars on fresher tires started just two rows behind him on the final restart of the night.
Johnston held the lead when the green flag flew again, but Davis on those new tires began a charge to the front, passing Rick Thompson for second place down the backstretch. However, Davis would never get a shot at Johnston as contact from Thompson on the following lap sent his #70 Ford Fusion sideways in Turn 2. Although Davis saved his car, the field bunched up behind him and brought out the race-ending caution when Hallock and Emasie again spun out together in Turn 3.
When the yellow and checkered flags waved, Johnston remained out front as he had been for 51 out of 60 laps in the night race and took the victory. Behind him, Thompson came home in second ahead of Simley, Coulibaly, and Davis.
While Johnston earned maximum points for his race 2 victory, his last-lap crash in race 1 ultimately cost him the points lead. A pair of podium finishes for Simley moved him back atop the standings by five points over Johnston and Davis.
The Power Series now leaves the desert doubleheader to head to the Pocono Raceway, where they’ll trade the dogleg for the Tunnel Turn, the bullring for stock car racing’s longest straightaway, and possibly trade the points lead again as well.