January 12th, 2016 by Corey Davis
The ITSR Power Series began its eleventh season with 100 laps of online racing at the Michigan International Speedway. It’s a track that’s no stranger to long stretches of green-flag racing in the real world and the virtual one, and that was true again this time. However, this race was spiced up with fuel saving, tire wear and a four-wide shootout on the final lap.
Before the first green flag of the season flew, the field took to the track for qualifying. Last season’s top rookie, Matt Delk, captured the pole position with a lap averaging 189.6 mph. Scott Simley, Corey Davis, Tim Johnston, and Bobby Terrell rounded out the top five in the starting field of 27 sim racers.
The early laps saw the top runners settle in single-file while the battle raged two- and three-wide behind them. After 10 laps of racing, tires began to wear on the bumpy Michigan tarmac, and some drivers like Bobby Terrell found themselves falling back while others like Dean Moll charged toward the top five.
The race-opening green-flag run ended on Lap 14 after contact farther back in the field. That brought everyone to pit road for fresh tires and fuel, and it also sent crew chiefs scrambling as they weighed their strategy options: two more pit stops with a bit of fuel saving, or three stops and more time on fresh tires?
Once the race restarted, a long green-flag run began, and early leader Delk was overtaken first by Johnston and later by Mike Kelley. However, Kelley was the first driver to reveal his strategy when he pitted on Lap 39, just 22 laps into the run.
Adam Hallock, who won the Season 10 finale at Charlotte, also hit pit road early, and over the next six laps, the rest of the field came into the pits for their first green-flag stops of the season. After Johnston pitted on Lap 45 to complete the cycle of stops, Kelley re-emerged out front with a five-second lead over defending series champion Chad Dalton.
The strategy game continued over the next 30 laps as drivers like Kelley and Hallock short-pitted to take fresh tires while others including Johnston, Delk, and Davis stretched their fuel to make one less stop.
As the race entered the final 15 laps, Dalton was in the lead but would need either major fuel saving or a splash of gas to make it to the finish. Delk held second place but was also saving a bit of fuel to make a 29-lap run to the end. And stalking them both in third was Johnston, with no fuel concerns and the fastest car on the track.
With the leaders in traffic, Johnston caught and passed Delk first, then Dalton with just nine laps to go. It appeared the four-time series champion was well on his way to victory while his competitors sweated over fuel concerns, but a caution with five laps to go turned the race on its head and set up a one-lap shootout for the win.
The top four drivers – Johnston, Delk, Dalton, Davis – as well as seventh-place Terry McCuin took just two tires under caution while everyone else took four. On worn left-side tires, the leaders would be sitting ducks, it seemed. But could they hold their positions for just one lap?
On the restart, Johnston got a nice jump to hold the lead, but behind him, Dalton spun his tires and slowed McCuin as well. The race for second place between Delk and Davis went side-by-side into Turn 1 as the cars on four tires quickly closed in.
The field ran four-wide down the backstretch before a pileup collected a half dozen cars including Delk, Terrell, and Kelley. While the smoke cleared from the wreck, Johnston led off of Turn 4 and crossed the line half a second ahead of Simley to take the win – his fourth straight at Michigan.
Behind them, the rest of field trickled across the line, most sporting damage from the last-lap melee. Corey Davis, Brian Harvey, and Dean Moll completed the top five while Bradley McLamb, Brad Collins, Delk, and Dalton rounded out the nine lead-lap finishers.
For Johnston, it was a flawless start to the new season, while drivers like Delk and Kelley saw good runs evaporate due to pit strategy, the final-lap pileup, or both. But with 16 races to go before a champion is crowned, a lot can happen quickly, as the final lap at Michigan certainly proved.