HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The youngest driver in the eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series Championship 4 ended up making the biggest splash on the biggest stage in sim-racing history Thursday night.
In a nationally-televised race on NBCSN where he had to win outright in order to claim his first championship, Connecticut teenager Zack Novak did exactly that, holding off rival Keegan Leahy on the final lap of the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win both the race and the title.
Novak used a patented slide move in turns three and four to wrest the lead away from Leahy with seven laps left, then held every advance the Canadian threw at him at bay over the remaining 10 miles.
In the end, the driver of the No. 6 Oscar Mayer Ford Mustang had enough to withstand even Leahy’s final-corner charge, taking the checkered flag in front by .150 seconds to secure the crown.
Thursday night’s race marked the sixth win of Novak’s NPAiS career, his series-leading fourth of the season and the most important moment of his life – worth $40,000 and a NASCAR-sanctioned title.
“That sounds awesome,” said Novak of the title of champion. “It was a grind all season to get to this point, and even that race itself was just a crazy grind. Man, I can’t believe I’m in this position. It’s unreal.”
Novak’s championship also gave the owner’s title to Roush Fenway Racing in its first season fielding cars in the NASCAR eSports field.
While Novak was best when it counted, it was Leahy who controlled the majority of the race, starting from the pole and leading 74 of 140 laps.
In fact, until a spin at lap 81 by Nickolas Shelton drew the first yellow flag of the night, the race ran uninterrupted to that point. After that caution, however, was when Novak began to take control.
He charged into position on the ensuing restart and then raced past Leahy in a three-wide battle for second on lap 98, all while Jimmy Mullis grabbed the race lead and began to pull Novak away from his three championship pursuers – Blake Reynolds, Bobby Zalenski and Leahy.
But even in sixth, Leahy still had some fight left in him. He passed Reynolds for fifth with 21 to go and was making time on the top four when a crash involving Caine Cook and Brad Davies on the frontstretch drew the third and final caution of the night.
A set of pit stops ensued, with Mullis overshooting his pit stall and dropping out of contention at that point, while Novak grabbed the lead off pit road and lined up in command for a 15-lap sprint to the finish.
That sprint turned into an all-out war in the final laps, with Leahy seizing the point on the restart before Novak charged ahead to lead lap 128. A sliding pass off turn two the next time around gave Leahy control once more, before Novak’s winning move with seven to go secured the race and championship.
Despite the final outcome, Novak admitted that he didn’t think he had the car to win the title for a decent portion of the event.
“The very first run of the race, we definitely had a better short run car than Keegan, but he seemed to be set up a lot better for the long run and the night as well,” noted Novak. “I figured we’d be a little bit faster on that last run (to the checkered), but he really kept me honest He raced me very clean, and I tried to race him as clean as I could back, so I hope I accomplished that. … We obviously had very comparable cars there at the end of the race.
“It’s surreal right now, man; I can’t believe I just came away with the championship.”
Leahy finished second in both the race and the final standings, coming up a car length short of his ultimate goal after being unable to clear Novak on the final lap.
“It was just so nerve wracking at the end there,” Leahy said. “The only thing I was trying to do was set (Zack) up for the last lap, because I knew I had the long run advantage on him, so I knew the only real shot I would have at him would be the very last lap. So I made sure I was in position. I didn’t make any mistakes. I held behind him waiting for a chance to make my move. I made it and it just didn’t quite stick as much as I wanted it to.
“I’m not going to knock him out of the way for the win; that wasn’t what I wanted at all. Second isn’t what we came here for, but it’s what we leave with and we’ll move on and try to get it next year.”
Non-championship driver Mullis finished third in the race, ahead of the third title contender, Bobby Zalenski. Former series champion Ryan Luza completed the top-five finishers.
Corey Vincent, outgoing titlist Ray Alfalla and Dylan Duval were sixth through eighth, respectively. Blake Reynolds finished ninth in the race and came home fourth in the championship standings.
Zack Novak, Keegan Leahy, Jimmy Mullis, Bobby Zalenski, Ryan Luza, Corey Vincent, Ray Alfalla, Dylan Duval, Blake Reynolds, Chris Shearburn, Jake Nichols, Malik Ray, Michael Guariglia, Ashton Crowder, Christian Challiner, Eric J. Smith, Phillip Diaz, Chris Overland, Cody Byus, Nick Ottinger, Michael Conti, Michael Guest, Casey Tucker, Caine Cook, Logan Clampitt, Logan Kress, Matt Bussa, Jarl Teien, Brian Schoenburg, Casey Kirwan, Adam Benefiel, Brad Davies, Nathan Lyon, Benjamin Nelson, Garrett Lowe, Brandon Kettelle, Ryan Lowe, Nickolas Shelton.