January 19th, 2016 by Corey Davis
While the real-world Kentucky Speedway undergoes major off-season renovations and reconfiguration, the virtual version was in perfect condition to host the ITSR Power Series last Sunday night. Of course, at this track, perfection means teeth-rattling bumps and wide but treacherous corners that invite three-wide racing but often punish it, too.
In the pre-race qualifying session, Scott Simley carried his momentum from a runner-up finish in the season opener and won the pole with a lap of 29.407 seconds. Michigan winner Tim Johnston qualified second, followed by Dean Moll, Bobby Terrell, Mike Kelley, and 21 other sim racers.
When the race began, Simley assumed the lead and the top ten cars settled into single-file racing. However, trouble unfolded behind them on Lap 7 when Saif Faries got loose in Turn 4, collecting David Camarra, Larry Hale, and defending series champion Chad Dalton, among others.
Under caution, Simley incurred a costly pit-road penalty that dropped him from the race lead to a lap down. Johnston took over the top spot, but he was soon passed by Kelley, sporting the paint scheme of his teammate and Power Series veteran Brian Motisko, who is recovering from recent open-heart surgery.
The race then settled into a long green-flag run, and pit strategy became the story as the drivers balanced fuel mileage with tire wear on the bumpy Kentucky track. Dean Moll was the first driver to hit pit road, coming in five laps before Kelley and the other leaders.
With the advantage of fresh tires, Moll’s four-second deficit before the stops became a three-second lead afterwards. However, if the race went green until the end, Moll would need one more pit stop than his competitors.
The second round of green-flag stops turned that strategy on its head. Everyone but Johnston had completed their stops when the caution flew for Matt Delk’s spin exiting Turn 2. Once Johnston pitted under yellow, Moll cycled into the lead while other nine lead-lap cars were forced to take a wave-around and restart at the tail end of the field.
On even fuel strategy with everyone else and with a buffer of lapped cars between himself and the rest of the lead-lap competitors, Moll appeared to be unstoppable if the race stayed green for the final 65 laps.
It seemed that might be the case as another long green run unfolded. After the final round of scheduled green-flag stops around Lap 115, Moll retained his three-second lead over Johnston, Corey Davis, and Kelley. However, another caution on Lap 125 again evaporated Moll’s lead and set the stage for a thrilling final 25 laps.
The ensuing restart featured a three-wide race for the lead into Turn 3 as Kelley dove to the bottom, Moll held the middle, and Davis took to the outside. Those treacherous Kentucky banks brought an early end to that battle, though, as contact from Moll sent Davis spinning and the yellow flag flying once again.
The rest of the race saw more of the same restart calamity throughout the field, turning the race that was once clean and green into a case of yellow fever. One notable casualty of these incidents was Johnston, who crashed during a three-wide battle between Speed Mafia teammates Rick Thompson and Brad Collins.
The race’s final restart with just six laps to go set up a fight for the win between race leader Kelley, erstwhile leader Moll, sneaky third-place underdog Jeff S. Davis, and once-penalized Simley, who used the late cautions to get back on the lead lap and into contention.
Kelley made a fast restart to hold the lead while Simley passed Davis and then Moll as the race entered the final two laps. The multi-groove nature of the Kentucky track meant Kelley was glued to the bottom while Simley found speed in the second lane.
Starting the final lap, Simley was almost two tenths behind, but a strong run through Turns 1 and 2 put him on Kelley’s rear bumper down the backstretch. As Kelley looked to hold the low line entering Turn 3, Simley charged the corner and bumped Kelley, sending the #2 Fusion sideways and while Simley’s #4 Camry checked up.
Meanwhile, third-place Moll took to the bottom groove and passed them both in Turn 4. While Kelley straightened his car out and Simley spun toward the grass, Moll motored to the finish line to score his first career Power Series victory.
Kelley and Jeff Davis completed the podium while Delk recovered from his mid-race spin to finish fourth. Simley’s race-long comeback ended in fifth after the final-lap contact with Kelley. Despite the incident, Simley holds the points lead by one point over Moll after the first two races of the season.
Next week, the series heads to another mile-and-a-half track at Chicagoland. After 150 more laps of online racing, we will see whether the late-race drama blows over in the Windy City or reignites tempers to heat up the wintertime racing.