Round 11 of the 2013-14 16th Street Racing League will go down as one of the greatest races in league history. Excitement, close battles, drama, and pure driver dedication abounded throughout the field, and for Matt Cooke, this was perhaps the most determined comeback drive of his iRacing Career. Down in P16 after a pit road speeding violation mid-way through the race, he somehow found a way to the front when it mattered, to retake the lead in the championship.
The day started well for the Cooke, placing his Aero-X Racing Dallara IndyCar on pole position, and bouncing back from his DNF at Watkins Glen a week previous. Brad Sanford’s Banshee Autosport car lined up alongside him, and with Cooke’s championship rivals back in P5 and P8 on the grid, he was able to get a good jump at the start of the race, guaranteeing himself at least one bonus point for leading a lap.
The start itself was a slightly timid affair, with the long run down to T1 allowing drivers to get into line. Tim Holgate (Panther Online Racing) advanced a position early as Anthony Kernich struggled to put the power down from fourth on the grid. As both Sanford and Terry Matthiensen struggled at the start of the race on cold tyres and heavy fuel, Holgate moved-up into P2 without much difficulty, and was subsequently able to pressure Cooke, though was unable to make a pass.
To the surprise of many, this first run stemmed an entire fuel stint, and all were forced to make their first pitstop under green flag conditions. A handful of drivers were caught speeding on pit road; however the long track length (2.5 miles) meant that most remained on the lead lap and, by the time the caution flag waved for the first time, 20 sim-racers were still scored on the same lap as the leader.
The first caution of the day came on Lap 38, as Niles Anders (Panther Online Racing) smashed into the SAFER barrier in Turn 3. Anders had already been in two incidents earlier in the day, and the Kansas native’s spell of bad luck in the season continued. On the resulting pitstop under the caution flag, Cooke overshot his pit stall, allowing Holgate in front of him. As Christopher Demerritt (Team Velociraptor) stayed out, Holgate was unable to lead a lap, and therefore was forced to wait until later in the race before he could claim any bonus points.
The race continued with long green flag runs, as the yellow flew only seven times in the 160 lap race. It was Lap 77 however that turned out to be the pivotal moment of the race. Working out of Turn 3 shortly after a restart, James Swinbanks (Aero-X Racing) brushed the wall. Right behind, Holgate, who was loose in the centre of the corner, slid up the race track and too hit the wall on the outside of the corner. Whilst Swinbanks was able to escape unscathed, suspension damage to Holgate’s car meant that he would finish well down the order, multiple laps down.
Cooke proceeded to nearly throw away victory, with a speeding penalty whilst pitting from the lead under green. GlacierTV commentator Aaron Likens referenced at this point how it seems that “no one wanted to lead the championship,” as every time a driver had an opportunity to take command in the title battle, they would have their fortunes turn – sometimes due to self-inflicted wounds. Cooke’s mistake relegated him to P16 in the race; however, timely cautions, and a variety of pit strategies allowed him to move back towards the front of the field.
The final restart of the day took place with Matt Kingsbury (LLM) and Brandon Litchenberg (Broken Aero) electing to take alternative fuel strategies to move to the front of the field, and this meant they were able to keep a hold of the top two spots until they pitted. The run again was long, and all drivers were forced to pit under green flag conditions. This time, it was Josh Chin (Banshee Autosport / Manly Gamedays) who made the mistake, overshooting his pit stall, and allowing Cooke to retake the lead.
The caution flew again right at the end of the sequence of green flag stops, as James Swinbanks had stopped on the front straight, thus ending the race under yellow for the first time in two seasons. Whilst fans were arguably robbed of a grandstand finish, Cooke had been able to deliver when it mattered, and it was doubtful that Chin would have been able to catch him. In a moment similar to the 2002 Indy 500, Chin was relegated to third as Litchenberg was ahead by 0.013s when the caution lights came on. When we think about how close the championship has been all season, this could well be a decisive moment when all is said and done in Fontana in five races’ time.
Whilst Cooke was happy with victory, his closest rivals in the championship were not. Holgate simply said that he was disappointed by the race, and declined further comment, and Chin was unhappy with what he called driver tactics in the latter stages of the race.
With pressure rising both on and off track, and just five rounds remaining in the championship, will tensions boil over at the Mid Ohio Sports Car Course, the toughest road course of the season? Regardless of what happens, we’re set for a thrilling set of races in the remainder of the championship, and time and time again, we’ve learnt this season to always expect the unexpected.
16th Street League Championship Top Five
Matt Cooke – 349 points
Joshua Chin – 332 points
Tim Holgate – 330 points
Courtney Terrell – 233 points
Paul Jenkins – 195 points
Race Replay: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfrMtT07bIg