Week 17 saw the drivers of the NASCAR iRacing.com Series World Championship (NiSWC) pay their annual visit to Phoenix International Raceway for the penultimate race of the season. It was apparent early in testing that this was going to be a wild and unpredictable race, but no one expected what happened Tuesday night. The race saw plenty of crashes and strategy, a first time winner and the crowning of a worthy champion.
When the dust settled, it was not a series regular who took the checkered flag first. Instead, it was NASCAR iRacing.com Pro Series driver Kevin King who not only had the car to beat for most of the race but played the strategy perfectly as well. The path to the front for King was not a walk in the park by any means though, as he benefited from a few fortunate breaks along the way. Nor did Alfalla have an easy time of things in his efforts to wrap-up the 2011 NASCAR iRacing.com Series World Championship.
Fittingly enough, the race started with the championship-leader on pole and 2010 champion Richard Towler on the outside of the front row. Crashes filled most the first third of the race as drivers jockeyed for position in the back of the field on a race track where clean overtaking opportunities were few and far between. Alfalla led the first 51 laps before Towler finally got past him on a restart. The Englishman’s lead was short lived though as both sim racers headed for the pits when the yellow flew on Lap 62.
The rest of the field stayed out, not willing to take that big of a gamble on fuel since those who pitted early would need several cautions to make it to the end of the 156 lap race without another stop. This gave King the lead, but the Californian was yet to make his first pit stop. After a short green flag run ended with yet another caution, King ducked to pit road on Lap 84 for fuel and tires to last to the finish. Having pitted on Lap 62, Bryan Blackford stayed-out and inherited the lead, banking on the prospects of additional cautions.
Try as he might, Blackford was no match for King and his fresh tires as it only took a dozen laps for King to retake the lead for good. The cautions continued, however, and with each yellow flag Blackford got closer and closer to being able to make it to the end on fuel. Other drivers were not so lucky. Alfalla made a second trip to pit road on Lap 84 to top-off the tank, but it put the points leader right in the eye of the storm when he rejoined the action. His path back to the front would be tough.
With King checking-out from the field, the drama focused on the battle was for second and for the championship. All eyes were on Blackford’s fuel gauge as he dueled with Brad Davies and Josh Berry for the runner-up spot, even as Alfalla tried to race his way back into the top ten, secure in the knowledge a twentieth place finish would secure the title no matter what happened up front.
“That was definitely not the way I was planning on finishing (or not finishing) that race!” — Ray Alfalla
The race came down to one last restart with four laps to go. As the field broke away, Steve Sheehan made contact with Towler, sparking a massive pile-up on the front straightway which sent Alfalla flying (literally) and also collected Thomas Hazard and John Gorlinsky, second and third in the championship, respectively. With the top three points-getters sitting in a pile of twisted sheet metal, King cruised to his first NiSWC win over Blackford who somehow made his fuel last until the end. Davies came home third ahead of Berry, while Brian Schoenburg bounced-back from a string of poor finishes with a solid fifth place effort.
The bigger story of the evening was the fact that Alfalla mathematically clinched the 2011 championship despite, ultimately, being classified 27th. After accepting some richly-deserved plaudits from iRacing president Tony Gardner on the race broadcast, Alfalla commented on winning the world’s top online oval championship, a trip to the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season finale and the accompanying $10,500.
“That was definitely not the way I was planning on finishing (or not finishing) that race!” he said. “(I) was happy to qualify well, and the race was a rough one. I botched the pit strategy really badly and found myself out of sync with most of the field. Decided to pit for tires again once everyone started passing me, and restarted 22nd. Slowly worked my way to 11th, before that final restart where I got my helicopter license.”
The championship is decided, but the rest of the positions are still up for grabs. Hazard remains second in the standings but Gorlinsky is only three points behind while fourth-placed Davies is well within striking distance of the runner-up spot, just 13 points behind Hazard. The other key battle is for the final slots in the top twenty-five. Anyone finishing outside of the top twenty-five at season’s end will have to qualify their way back into the 2012 NASCAR iRacing.com Series World Championship via the Pro Series. Although the top sixteen in points are locked-in, everyone from seventeenth to thirty-third is still mathematically at risk of dropping-out . . . or capable of moving up. After Phoenix, Jordan Erickson and Connor Mackenzie (313 points) are tied for twenty-fifth with Jean Costa (309), Andrew Fayash III (306), and Justin Lowery (304) hot on their heels. Those farther back will need some serious help, along with a good finish in the season finale if they have any hope of making the top twenty-five.
This leaves us with just one race to go, at Homestead-Miami Speedway. While the championship has been decided, there is still plenty up for grabs. The top twelve positions all pay and the battle for the top twenty-five will surely come down to the last lap as well. Homestead is the last chance for a new driver to put his name on the list of NiSWC winners in 2011. Will another new face follow King to Victory Lane?