HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Nick Ottinger realized a long-held dream and checked the last missing item off his career bucket list by earning his first eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series championship on Monday night.
It marked the culmination of a nine-year quest toward the top for the Claremont, N.C., native, who joined iRacing’s top NASCAR-sanctioned series in 2012 and has coveted the title ever since. Ottinger earned $100,000 for his maiden title victory.
Ottinger was third or worse among the Championship 4 for most of the 134-lap distance, but flipped the script thanks to several timely cautions in the second half of the race.
When race-long dominator Ryan Luza was turned off the nose of Bobby Zalenski with four laps left, the late caution opened the door for Ottinger to take his final set of fresh tires and charge forward.
It took three overtime periods to get there, but Ottinger came from 18th to pass Zalenski coming to the white flag, with the William Byron eSports No. 25 finishing fourth in the race to secure the crown.
The thrilling and improbable nature of the title victory led to a rush of emotions for the 26-year-old following the checkered flag, as the enormity of his accomplishment began to sink in.
“I’m obviously overwhelmed with emotion,” Ottinger said moments after clinching the championship. “It’s just great to have a good team behind me, man. We were on the outside looking in, for sure. We got bit by the tire strategy a little bit, but we had to try something. We were the third best car, probably.
“I couldn’t have predicted that (finish), man. All that hard work this year… it’s surreal.”
Though Ottinger was best among the Championship 4 at the end, making a charge for the ages, for much of the race that honor belonged to Luza. The Texan first took command from Bobby Zalenski on lap two, kicking off a race-long battle between the pair which was dominated by Luza.
Luza and Zalenski combined to lead 104 laps Monday night, while Ottinger and Michael Conti – the other two drivers in title contention – struggled to keep pace. All but Conti went for a two-stop pit strategy, while Conti pitted at lap 65 in attempt to run the 134-lap distance on just one pit stop.
However, yellow flags in the second half of the race changed the complexion in a big way.
The night’s first yellow on lap 92 threw any thoughts of major strategy shifts out the window and set the stage for a barnburner run to the finish, amplified by a second yellow with 30 to go that ratcheted the intensity up even further.
At that point, Conti and Ottinger stayed out to conserve a set of tires, while Zalenski and Luza pitted for their final sets of stickers in hopes that the race would run out to its conclusion.
That didn’t happen to start, with a third quick caution dwindling several more laps off at the restart, but once the green flag returned with 20 to go the battle at the front of the field was on in a hurry.
Zalenski took the lead in the championship race from Conti on lap 118 before grabbing the race lead outright, with two Virtual Racing School friends behind him in Keegan Leahy and Ray Alfalla before Luza in fourth.
But Luza wasn’t content to sit quietly. He grabbed third with eight laps left and came to second a revolution later, putting himself all over Zalenski for the win and the championship.
That battle turned chaotic with four laps left, however, when contact on the backstretch between the two sent Luza crashing hard into the wall and ending his hopes of securing a second series title.
Zalenski was able to continue, but on older tires than his pursuers, after Conti and Ottinger came down pit road for fresh rubber in hopes of charging through the field.
A pair of overtimes followed, with multi-car crashes in turn four both times scuttling the green flag after Zalenski had escaped to safety out front. When the final restart was set up, Zalenski found himself second, with Ottinger eighth and Conti 11th heading into the two-lap dash for all the marbles.
Ottinger pinned his hopes on the high side, soaring around several cars off the exit of turn two and then slicing to the middle of the track to go three-wide and slip underneath Zalenski coming to the white flag.
From there, Ottinger raced home to the biggest moment of his sim-racing career, finishing behind Chris Shearburn, Chris Overland and Eric J. Smith in the rundown but ahead of his Championship 4 rivals.
Relief was the overwhelming feeling for Ottinger after so many years of trying to reach the pinnacle.
“This has been so long coming. I’ve wanted this … it’s the last thing I hadn’t done and man, I just hoped we could pull it off, but for William to believe in me and his support to be a part of me getting to this point is so special,” Ottinger said.
“Gosh, it feels good. We didn’t win the race, but finally, man. Champion sounds really good right now.”
Zalenski came across the line seventh and ended the year second in points.
Conti finished 10th to rank third among the title contenders, while Luza’s fourth-place points finish came with a disappointing 31st in the final race of the season, thanks to the crash damage he sustained in the incident with Zalenski.
Chris Shearburn won the last race of the year, his first victory in 71 series starts.