Michigan International Speedway played host to the penultimate race of the 2011 NASCAR iRacing.com Pro Series season and, with the series championship and automatic berths in the 2012 NASCAR iRacing.com Series World Championship still up for grabs, last night’s online race figured to set the stage for next week’s dramatic season finale. While all eyes were on series co-points leaders Matt Whitten and Marcus Lindsey who started third and eleventh, respectively, it was Robert Hall who stole the NiPS thunder with a convincing win.
Pole-winner Michael Conti took the green flag and, together with Jeremy Thornton, quickly built a sizable gap on the field. The two ran nose-to-tail for the initial fuel run, with Conti leading all but one of the first 37 laps before finally giving way to Thornton, who appeared to have the car to beat on the long run. The two pitted together on Lap 40, with Conti getting back around Thornton coming-off pit road.
It appeared as though Conti would keep the lead through the pit cycle, but Robert Hall had other ideas. After a great pit stop, he closed the gap on the two leaders and passed them both to take the lead on Lap 43. Kevin King was another big winner on the round of green flag pit stops, going from fifteenth to fourth, though he still sat two and a half seconds behind the race lead. Whitten was on the other end of the spectrum, losing multiple spots on pit road.
Hall easily kept the lead through the second run and was just about to make his second green flag pit stop when Mitchell Hunt got a little too eager with the throttle after completing his pit stop and spun, bringing-out the first yellow flag of the race on Lap 66. It was a bad break for Conti, who had pitted just before the caution and so went from a strong second place to a lap down. In contrast, Hall pitted during the yellow and easily kept the lead, with Kenneth O’Keefe moving into second position and Conti restarting all the way back outside the top 20.
Everyone would be good to go on fuel from this point and Hall appeared to have O’Keefe — and everyone else — covered. But a caution with 11 laps remaining threw a wrench into Hall’s victory march. The top 20 cars all elected to stay out, giving no one a tire advantage on Hall. O’Keefe would have to get it done on the restart with just seven laps to go.
However, Hall got a great jump on the restart and set sail, easily getting the victory as the caution flag flew again with four laps to go, ending the race under yellow. Thornton finished second, Whitten third. Alex Warren had another strong run, finishing fourth ahead of Jon Adams as O’Keefe slipped to sixth in the final dash to the flag.
The point standings get a little more complicated now with drop weeks coming into play. No matter how you look at it, the battle for the championship is still very tight. Warren leads Whitten by three points, with Lindsey seven markers back of the lead. Patrick Baldwin sits fourth, just 11 points out of the lead, with King fifth, albeit 32 points adrift of Warren.
It all comes down to next week at Kentucky Speedway, with four drivers still in the running for the championship. The battle for the title might come down to the last lap of the race as all four of the contenders have been running very well in recent weeks. Likewise, the battle for the final spots in the top 25 – and automatic berths in the 2012 NASCAR iRacing.com Series World Championship – is far from settled. Josh Connors currently holds the final transfer spot, but PJ Stergios, Matt Sentell and O’Keefe are still within striking distance.
There are also a handful of sim racers who are still looking for their first win of the season, and Kentucky will be their last chance to get it done this season. In any case, there is still one more chapter to be written. Who will win the NiPS title? Who will advance to the NiSWC? To top it all off, the race will be broadcast by PSRTV, so tune in to iRacing.com at 9 pm (Eastern) on January 17 (02:00 GMT on January 18) and catch the finish to what has been a great season of racing.