FORT WORTH, Texas – Michael Conti entered Tuesday night’s eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series race at Texas Motor Speedway knowing the only way he’d be racing for a series title was with a win.
After more than 250 miles of racing and a myriad of anxious moments in the closing laps, Conti did just that, snatching a clutch victory at the 1.5-mile quad oval to punch his ticket to the Championship 4.
The driver of the JR Motorsports No. 8 held off every challenge during an overtime restart and raced home as the field crashed behind him for his 10th series win – and perhaps the most important triumph of his nine-year eNASCAR career.
Conti’s win propelled him from last on the eight-driver playoff grid up to third and guarantees him a chance at the $100,000 champion’s prize on Monday, Nov. 2 at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway.
It also snapped a two-year, 37-race winless drought. Conti’s last victory was Oct. 9, 2018 at Dover (Del.) Int’l Speedway, a night which catapulted him into the Championship 4 that year as well.
“I can’t believe we just did that,” a stunned Conti said in victory lane. “I really can’t believe that just happened. Everything came together exactly like we needed it to, and it all worked out for us.”
A lap-67 caution was the moment that the race swung in Conti’s favor, when Ray Alfalla slowed to hit pit road and Ryan Luza slammed into the back of Alfalla’s No. 2 while trying to avoid him.
Conti was less than a lap from coming down pit road himself – right at the end of a cycle of green-flag stops – but the yellow flag pinned all but the top four cars a lap down and allowed Conti to take fresh tires under the slowdown.
When the green flag returned, Conti, his roommate Logan Clampitt, Alfalla and Kollin Keister took control of the race on fresh rubber, leaving the rest of the field swinging for the fences from behind.
Keister led a portion of the race during the middle stages, but a final round of green-flag pit stops kicked off with 50 to go and left Conti in front of the field with three-lap fresher tires when things cycled out on lap 132.
With Clampitt riding second as a wingman, the race appeared to be locked up in Conti’s favor, but a yellow with 25 laps left for a frontstretch crash involving Chris Overland and Chris Shearburn set the stage for a wild run to the checkered flag.
The Overland-Shearburn incident was the first of four cautions during the last 25 laps of regulation, and the last incident with five laps left – when Clampitt was turned from second after contact with Keister –sent the race into extra distance and ended the playoff hopes of Alfalla and Jimmy Mullis in the process.
Alfalla was eliminated at that point with a blown engine, while Mullis suffered heavy damage that relegated him to deep in the field after sitting fourth on the playoff grid for most of the night.
Conti, meanwhile, held off a furious charge from Keister and polesitter Graham Bowlin during the two-lap overtime sprint to secure the trophy, with fireworks erupting behind him off the final corner.
Contact between Conti and Keister coming into the quad-oval sent Keister spinning in front of the field from the runner-up spot, leading to a massive multi-car crash that scrambled the final results.
Conti crossed the finish line .260 seconds in front of his JR Motorsports teammate Brad Davies, who came through the smoke for a second-place finish that gave team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. the first one-two finish for JRM in the history of its eSports program.
Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL winner Bobby Zalenski, who already locked up his spot in the Championship 4 two weeks earlier, finished third ahead of Clampitt and Keister.
Corey Vincent, Nick Ottinger, Brandon Kettelle, Dylan Duval and John Gorlinsky filled out the top 10.
With wins during the round of eight of the playoffs, Zalenski, Ottinger and Conti locked up Championship 4 berths, with Luza snatching the final spot by three points over Mullis, who finished 31st.
Keegan Leahy, Garrett Lowe and Alfalla were also eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday.
As he reflected on his season-changing performance, the usually-reserved Conti chuckled before offering some perspective.
“There are nights to be calm and professional, and then there are nights where you lose your mind,” he noted. “Tonight is one of the latter. I’ve never been that excited for a victory in my entire career.”
1. 8-Michael Conti , 2. 88-Brad Davies , 3. 83-Bobby Zalenski , 4. 99-Logan Clampitt , 5. 17-Kollin Keister , 6. 27-Corey Vincent , 7. 25-Nick Ottinger , 8. 14-Brandon Kettelle , 9. 41-Dylan Duval , 10. 97-John Gorlinsky , 11. 32-Keegan Leahy , 12. 36-Chris Shearburn , 13. 6-Nathan Lyon , 14. 3-Blake Reynolds , 15. 18-Graham Bowlin , 16. 47-Steve Sheehan , 17. 5-Matt Bussa , 18. 24-Jake Nichols , 19. 37-Christian Challiner , 20. 16-Chris Overland [28[, 21. 4-Santiago Tirres , 22. 21-Garrett Lowe , 23. 75-Phillip Diaz , 24. 90-Zack Novak , 25. Ryan Luza , 26. 54-Alex McCollum , 27. 15-Michael Guariglia , 28. 23-Casey Kirwan , 29. 55-Caine Cook , 30. 10-Justin Bolton , 31. 46-Jimmy Mullis , 32. 77-Bob Bryant , 33. 79-Brian Schoenburg , 34. 33-Michael Guest , 35. 2-Ray Alfalla , 36. 51-Malik Ray , 37. 9-Eric J. Smith , 38. 66-Jarl Teien .
Lead Changes: 14 among 11 drivers.
Lap Leader(s): Graham Bowlin 1-2, Bob Bryant 3-6, Keegan Leahy 7-12, Graham Bowlin 13-18, Ryan Luza 19-21, Bob Bryant 22-49, Michael Guest 50-57, Casey Kirwan 58-64, Michael Conti 65-96, Kollin Keister 97-117, Michael Conti 118-120, Malik Ray 121-124, John Gorlinsky 125, Brian Schoenburg 126-131, Michael Conti 132-169.
Laps Led: Michael Conti 73, Bob Bryant 32, Kollin Keister 21, Graham Bowlin 8, Michael Guest 8, Casey Kirwan 7, Brian Schoenburg 6, Keagan Leahy 6, Malik Ray 4, Ryan Luza 3, John Gorlinsky 1.
Hard Charger: 14-Brandon Kettelle (+29)
Caution Flags: Six for 23 laps
Margin of Victory: .260 seconds
Time of Race: One hour, 47 minutes, 10.732 seconds.
Average Speed: 141.912 mph
Pole Winner: 18-Graham Bowlin, 28.231 seconds (191.279 mph)
Fastest Lap: 4-Santiago Tirres, Lap 162, 28.435 seconds (189.907 mph)
Strength of Field: 6,775 average iRating