Keister Holds Off Luza For First eNASCAR Victory

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Keister Holds Off Luza
Kollin Keister celebrates with a burnout after winning Tuesday's Coca-Cola 300 at the virtual Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Justin Melillo photo)

CONCORD, N.C. – Displaying ice in his veins down the home stretch at the virtual Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kollin Keister held off Ryan Luza to win Tuesday’s Coca-Cola 300 for the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series.

Keister, who inherited the race lead for good with 50 to go when Michael Conti pitted on a three-stop strategy, kept every advance that the 2017 series champion made at bay over the final green-flag run.

The Frostburg, Md., native then drove away once Luza burned the tires off his No. 53 Williams eSports Ford Mustang, pulling out to a 2.457-second margin of victory in the longest race on the schedule.

It was the first series victory for Keister – a true rookie in the eNASCAR ranks this season – in just his sixth career start. He became the 52nd different driver to win a race in the 11-year history of the tour.

“Man, that was awesome. We stuck to our plan from the start; if it went green all the way, we were committed to the two-stop strategy,” said Keister, the driver of the No. 17 Fifth-Third Bank Ford Mustang for Roush-Fenway Racing. “We figured that would be faster, and it was. I actually got mired back in traffic because I messed one of my stops up, and I had to drive (through the field) from 18th.

“At the beginning of the runs, I felt like I was out of control loose, but it helped in the long run, that’s for sure.”

Tuesday night’s race was the cleanest Charlotte event in the series’ 12 appearances at the 1.5-mile quad oval, with only one yellow slowing the pace and an average speed of 171.851 mph over 300 miles.

Keegan Leahy led the field in qualifying and paced the first 19 laps, but it was Conti who took control for the first time on lap 20 and appeared to have the field well in hand for much of the evening.

However, Conti’s undoing ultimately came around lap 57, when he pitted for the first time and tipped a three-stop plan that put him behind the eight-ball the rest of the way.

In contrast, Keister didn’t cycle to the top spot for the first time until lap 104, following Conti’s second pit stop of the race. Once he was out in front, though, Keister flexed his muscle and looked like a seasoned veteran.

Keister’s decisive pass of fellow rookie Graham Bowlin for fifth on lap 146 ended up being the move that won him the race, as after that he cycled to the race lead when Conti pitted for the final time with 50 to go.

Kollin Keister (17) leads Ryan Luza Tuesday at virtual Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Justin Melillo photo)

From there, it was an all-out war between the rookie and the champion, as Keister played masterful defense to keep Luza behind him in the closing laps.

Of particular note was his slice down to the white line in turn three around the 35 to go mark, a move that broke Luza’s momentum and allowed Keister to begin pulling away into the night.

“I thought Luza was saving tires behind me, honestly, but I was able to pull away at the end,” Keister noted. “We were really close for a while, but we started to drive away around 30 to go and kept going with the pedal down. I knew I couldn’t let up, because if I did, he’d get right back to me.

“This is awesome. I’ve wanted to be in this series for a while, and I finally got here, and now it’s even more awesome to say that I’ve won one of these races. It’s a dream come true, for sure.”

Garrett Lowe stole the runner-up spot from Luza coming to the white flag as Luza’s tires faded, leaving the Texas to settle for third after challenging for his fourth victory of the season most of the night.

“I thought I had something for him, but for some reason, the last 10 laps of the runs we would be super, super tight,” relayed Luza. “We just didn’t have the balance. I was trying to stay behind him, but Keister had a lot more straightaway speed than I did, so even when I was in his draft, I couldn’t really save tires and was having to drive really hard just to keep up with him.

“Kollin deserved the win; I’m just glad we brought home the top-three (finish) and kept up our consistency.”

Bowlin and Leahy crossed fourth and fifth, respectively, followed by Corey Vincent, Brad Davies, Eric J. Smith, Justin Bolton and Casey Kirwan.

Conti ended up 16th after his team’s strategy call backfired, while Dover winner Nick Ottinger was a lowly 39th thanks to connection issues that bounced him from the race server before halfway.

The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series season continues May 26 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which makes its return to the calendar for the first time since 2018. Matt Bussa is the defending race winner.

The results:

1. 17-Kollin Keister [8], 2. 21-Garrett Lowe [17], 3. 53-Ryan Luza [12], 4. 18-Graham Bowlin [2], 5. 32-Keegan Leahy [1], 6. 27-Corey Vincent [18], 7. 88-Brad Davies [31], 8. 9-Eric J. Smith [25], 9. 10-Justin Bolton [29], 10. 23-Casey Kirwan [11], 11. 51-Malik Ray [14], 12. 83-Bobby Zalenski [10], 13. 15-Michael Guariglia [19], 14. 24-Jake Nichols [32], 15. 2-Ray Alfalla [24], 16. 8-Michael Conti [15], 17. 46-Jimmy Mullis [30], 18. 6-Nathan Lyon [5], 19. 97-John Gorlinsky [35], 20. 99-Logan Clampitt [20], 21. 42-Bob Bryant [36], 22. 55-Caine Cook [9], 23. 36-Chris Shearburn [4], 24. 33-Michael Guest [6], 25. 66-Jarl Teien [3], 26. 77-Ashton Crowder [16], 27. 14-Brandon Kettelle [34], 28. 1-Steve Sheehan [33], 29. 37-Christian Challiner [23], 30. 47-Jeremy R. Allen [38], 31. 54-Alex McCollum [13], 32. 3-Blake Reynolds [7], 33. 41-Dylan Duval [27], 34. 5-Matt Bussa [40], 35. 90-Zack Novak [39], 36. 16-Chris Overland [28], 37. 75-Phil Diaz [22], 38. 4-Santiago Tirres [21], 39. 25-Nick Ottinger [26], 40. 79-Brian Schoenburg [37].

Lead Changes: Nine among five drivers

Lap Leader(s): Keegan Leahy 1-19, Michael Conti 20-56, Keegan Leahy 57-65, Ryan Luza 66-75, Brandon Kettelle 76, Michael Conti 77-103, Kollin Keister 104-137, Ryan Luza 138-139, Michael Conti 140-150, Kollin Keister 151-200.

Laps Led: Kollin Keister 84, Michael Conti 75, Keegan Leahy 28, Ryan Luza 12, Brandon Kettelle 1.

Caution Flags: One for three laps

Margin of Victory: 2.457 seconds

Time of Race: One hour, 44 minutes, 44.517 seconds

Average Speed: 171.851 mph

Pole Position: 32-Keegan Leahy, 27.969 seconds (193.071 mph)

Fastest Lap: 8-Michael Conti, 28.574 seconds (188.983 mph)

Strength of Field: 6,863 average iRating