April 7th, 2016 by Corey Davis
While the ITSR Power Series drivers are accustomed to long-distance events with long green-flag runs, last Sunday brought a chance of pace – quite literally – with a pair of sprint races at the Auto Club Speedway that saw the track evolve from slick and slippery in the daytime to cool and quick at night.
The sim racing doubleheader began under the hot afternoon sunshine, and in qualifying, points leader Mike Kelley led all 20 sim racers with a lap of 40.033 seconds. Bobby Terrell, Scott Simley , Tim Johnston, and Bryan Harvey followed closely behind.
The race began with seven laps under green before the first of four cautions slowed the field and brought everyone to pit road for fresh tires and fuel. Kelley held the lead through the caution and the restart, setting the fastest lap of the race on Lap 12 and opening a one-second lead over Johnston before the caution waved again on Lap 22.
A quick pit stop for Johnston moved him into the race lead, but on the restart, he faced a strong challenge from Kelley, who passed on Lap 32 to re-take the top spot. Behind them, defending series champion Chad Dalton held third place but faced his own challenge from Bobby Terrell.
As the race’s longest green-flag run continued, tire wear became a factor and set up some close battles entering the final ten laps. Johnston got back around Kelley on Lap 41, and on the same lap just behind them, Terrell passed Dalton for third while Corey Davis closed in on both of them.
Those tight fights in progress were interrupted when the yellow flag flew again with just six laps remaining, which led to a variety of pit strategy calls for the green-white-checkered shootout to come.
Bradley McLamb stayed on track, moving from seventh place into the lead. Johnston and Dalton took just two tires in the pits – the same move that won Johnston the season-opener at Michigan under similar late-race circumstances. Behind them, Kelley, Terrell, Davis, and the rest of the lead-lap cars took four tires for the two-lap fight to the finish.
Those varying strategies created a wild final restart. Entering Turn 1, the leaders fanned out three wide on the wide Fontana banking. Johnston banged doors with McLamb, sending his #54 Camry sideways in front of the field that followed.
While Johnston spun, Kelley got past Dalton for the lead down the backstretch with Terrell trailing closely behind. As the leaders raced toward the white flag, Dalton slid off Turn 4, spinning through the grass and bringing out the final caution.
After running one more lap behind the pace car, Kelley took the checkered flag – his fourth of the season – after leading a race-high 32 laps. Terrell, Davis, Harvey, and McLamb rounded out the top five finishers. Dalton’s slide moved him back to 11th place while Johnston failed to finish and was scored in 13th position.
Once the track and the sim racers cooled down, the field took back to the Fontana oval for 110 miles of online racing under the lights. With limited pre-race practice time, adapting to the grippier conditions was the key in getting up to speed.
Terrell managed that better than anyone in qualifying, taking the pole position with a lap of 38.368 seconds – 1.7 seconds, or nearly 8 mph, faster than the pole for the day race. Qualifying just behind him were Brian Motisko, Harvey, Jeff S. Davis, and Johnston.
Terrell led the opening laps, but a familiar foe soon loomed large in his mirror. After starting sixth, Kelley methodically moved toward the front, eventually taking the lead on Lap 14. Johnston didn’t let him get away, though, moving his #54 backup car into second place as the race neared the midway point.
As the long run of green-flag racing continued, pit stops began on Lap 26 when Johnston came in for service. Kelley pitted the next lap, but Johnston only needed one lap on fresh tires to open up a two-second lead.
While Kelley slowly closed in on the leader, the field spread out behind him as tires wore on the coarse California surface. Eventually, a bit of extra tire wear for Kelley – or some smart saving by Johnston – let Johnston open up the gap, and no late cautions would cost him the victory this time.
In a determined drive after his day race DNF, Johnston led 27 out of 55 laps and took the night race victory by 2.5 seconds over Kelley. Terrell finished third to score his second podium of the night, while Jeff S. Davis and Simley finished fourth and fifth.
Although Johnston stole the show in the night race, Kelley’s pair of two-two finishes helped him nearly double his pre-event points lead from 12 to 23 points. Corey Davis sits second in the standings, just one marker ahead of Johnston.
Just two more weeks and three more races – a road race at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway and a doubleheader in Iowa Speedway – now separate the drivers from the three-race showdown for the championship. With a strong Fontana showing in the books, Kelley may already be California dreamin’ of the title.