Winds of change swept across the Arizona desert last Wednesday as the HPP Simulation Grand National Series arrived at Phoenix International Raceway to kick off its 2016 season. New drivers and teams made their debut, fan-favorites found homes in different places, and cars were wrapped in the colors of fresh sponsors hoping to gain exposure on iRacing Live. Yet, when the dust settled around Rattlesnake Hill, a familiar face was back in Victory Lane: Gary Whitson, in his trademark #13 Chevrolet.
The atmosphere around the one-mile oval was electric from the get-go, with 45 sim racers attempting to qualify for 40 spots in the starting lineup. With just one second remaining in Q1, Jack Stroski clawed his #88 Ford into the field, knocking Ken Rodriguez from the bubble and sending the owner/driver of the SpeedWerx Racing Team to the spotters’ stand for the remainder of the evening. Josh Jones, making his series debut, piloted his #40 One8 Racing Chevrolet Camaro to the True Power Motor Oil Pole Position, navigating the flat speedway in a blistering 26.486 seconds. Jeffrey Belt in the #67 lined up alongside him, as the field took the green flag just after 6pm Pacific time.
Jones jumped out to an early and commanding lead, but his advantage was erased on lap six when the #55 of Scotty Williamson got loose off of Turn Two, collecting Eric Barile’s #26 Chevrolet. Hoping to get an early read on tire wear, the pole-sitter brought his vehicle to the attention of his crew under the ensuing caution, handing the point over to the #13 of Gary Whitson for the first time of the night.
Josh Jones, who was relegated to 15th after his pit stop, did not stay mid-pack for long, masterfully carving his way through traffic back to third place by the time the yellow flag waved on lap 22. Whitson took this occasion to duck off the track for a four-tire change, putting Jones back in command of the field, where he stayed for much of the middle portion of the race.
On lap 67, perennial Canadian contender Michael Chrobok in the #7 rubbed doors with Milt Matice’s #42, sending the latter’s Toyota for a spin. The resulting caution provided a convenient opportunity for front-runners Jones and Whitson to service their already-fast vehicles, prompting Will Warstler in the #6 to assume the lead. His stay at top of the scoring pylon was short lived though, as Chad Dalton’s #77 Toyota rocketed to the front five laps later.
Fending-off repeated challenges from a shockingly-fast Bobby Barney, who started 38th in his #16 Barney Motorsports Ford, Dalton held the lead until lap 92. It was then that Gary Whitson, in the #13 HPP Simulation Chevrolet, made a daring three-wide pass off Turn Four to reclaim the top spot.
Whitson was able to keep everyone a safe distance in his mirror until a harrowing wreck occurred on lap 113. In a no-fault case of two drivers fighting hard for the same piece of real estate, Will Warstler made contact with the #68 K7 Creations Toyota of Ty Hester, launching Hester above the SAFER Barrier and into the catchfence.
The damage to the track’s safety equipment proved too extensive to complete in a timely fashion, and the race was called by series officials just short of its scheduled distance. Gary Whitson was declared the winner. Josh Jones rallied late to finish second. Bobby Barney held on for third, in the process picking up the M-SPEC Hard Charger Award for his impressive run through the field.
Next week, the HPP Simulation Grand National Series moves east to the Homestead-Miami Speedway for the DSD Mini Max II 150. The sim racing action is sure to be intense, as 40 of the hungriest drivers move one step closer to the Pursuit of the Pedals championship chase. Fans of the HPP Simulation Series need not miss a minute of the action. Tune in Wednesday evening at 9 PM ET on iRacing Live (www.iracing.com/live) to hear the engines roar once again, this time from the Sunshine State.