DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Tuesday night’s eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series season opener at the virtual Daytona Int’l Speedway featured 100 laps of breathtaking two- and three-wide dancing, with a shot of redemption at the finish line for Canadian Keegan Leahy.
Leahy, who lost last year’s championship finale to rival Zack Novak in a heartbreaking finish, fired the opening shot of the new season with a victory in the Daytona 250, coming out on top of a last-lap scramble to the checkered flag by .004 seconds over Nick Ottinger.
In taking his sixth-career eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series checkered flag, Leahy delivered Denny Hamlin Racing its first win as an eSports team in its debut at iRacing’s top level of oval-track competition.
But it wasn’t easy. Leahy’s route to victory lane required a perfectly-executed pit stop on lap 66, as well as consistent drafting help from polesitter Bobby Zalenski down the stretch.
He ultimately got both, and was able to hold Ottinger at bay in the tri-oval at the end, despite having to duck below the yellow line to the apron in the last 100 yards.
“That (race) was incredible; I can’t believe we pulled this off,” said Leahy, who earned $1,500 for his victory and also led the most laps (25) of any driver on the night. “We had a game plan from the start. We short-pitted, got ahead of the pack, and just tried to play it safe because we wanted to be there at the end. Somehow, we managed to pull it off, which is hard to do at a place like Daytona!
“I’m not sure how calm I was in the final laps … we just decided to run the bottom,” Leahy added in regards to his group’s strategy. “The finish was absolutely crazy. I had Bobby (Zalenski); he worked with me and we were discussing throughout the whole race. He pushed me to this win and I have to credit this one to him.”
Ottinger tried as he might throughout the closing stretch, even edging ahead of Leahy a couple of times at the start/finish line, but could never work his way clear with help from Logan Clampitt and had to settle for a runner-up finish and $1,000 payout.
“We just needed a little bit better timing on the push (on the last lap),” lamented Ottinger. “Logan did all he could. It was a hard-fought win for Keegan, but man … it was just that close. I didn’t really expect him to go below the yellow line. I expected us to race it out, door to door, but it’s whatever. It’s in the rules that he can do that, I guess.
“I’m not happy to lose it by that much in that way, but man, our Logitech G Chevrolet was freakin’ fast,” continued Ottinger. “I’m ecstatic for William Byron eSports in that regard. We had a great showing in the first race for this new team.”
Zalenski, the pusher who stayed committed to Leahy’s back bumper off the final corner, ended up finishing third and collected $500 for his efforts – but admitted he had a plan to go for the win if the circumstances had worked out right to enact it.
“We had a great night. That was the plan going in, was for a group of us to work together, and we did that,” said Zalenski. “You love to have a car at superspeedway races like I had tonight. You can somewhat control your destiny, and that’s a lot of fun.
“At the end there, I tried to push Keegan past those two (Ottinger and Clampitt) so I could get up there and beat him, but I was in a position where we were working together all race and I wanted to help him to the win and that, in turn, helped me to finish third as well.”
Clampitt finished just off the podium in fourth, followed by Christian Challiner in fifth.
Clash winner John Gorlinsky, four-time series champion Ray Alfalla, Ashton Crowder, Brandon Kettelle and 2017 titlist Ryan Luza completed the top 10.
While the frontrunners made it to the finish line in one piece, rookie Graham Bowlin got tagged sideways in the middle of the pack coming to the checkered, sparking a multi-car pileup that scrambled positions in the second half of the field as cars went spinning.
Most of the chaos, however, occurred just beyond the finish line headed toward turn one.
Aside from that, the race officially ran caution-free for all 100 laps on Tuesday night.
Defending series champion and defending race winner Zack Novak was a factor early, leading at one point in the opening laps, but fell back in the final stint and finished 20th.
Race two of the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series season takes place at the virtual Auto Club Speedway on Feb. 25.
Eric J. Smith of Jim Beaver eSports was last year’s Fontana winner, doing so at the time as an independent, non-team-affiliated driver.
Keegan Leahy ($1,500), Nick Ottinger ($1,000), Bobby Zalenski ($500), Logan Clampitt, Christian Challiner, John Gorlinsky, Ray Alfalla, Ashton Crowder, Brandon Kettelle, Ryan Luza, Graham Bowlin, Brad Davies, Michael Guest, Kollin Keister, Chris Shearburn, Jeremy R. Allen, Jimmy Mullis, Corey Vincent, Eric J. Smith, Zack Novak, Blake Reynolds, Casey Kirwan, Nathan Lyon, Michael Conti, Garrett Lowe, Alex McCollum, Chris Overland, Michael Guariglia, Jake Nichols, Justin Bolton, Jarl Teien, Phillip Diaz, Matt Bussa, Santiago Tirres, Bob Bryant, Steve Sheehan, Malik Ray, Brian Schoenburg, Dylan Duval, Caine Cook.
Lead Changes: 33 among 14 different drivers
Lap Leaders: Bobby Zalenski 1, Zack Novak 2, Bobby Zalenski 3-8, Chris Shearburn 9-13, Zack Novak 14-15, Chris Shearburn 16-28, Zack Novak 29-30, Chris Overland 31-34, Nick Ottinger 35, Justin Bolton 36-37, Christian Challiner 38-40, Chris Overland 41-42, Malik Ray 43, Graham Bowlin 44, Chris Overland 45, Kollin Keister 46, Graham Bowlin 47-49, Brandon Kettelle 50, Malik Ray 51-56, Graham Bowlin 57-59, Michael Guest 60, Graham Bowlin 61, Malik Ray 62-63, Graham Bowlin 64, Malik Ray 65-67, Chris Overland 68-69, Corey Vincent 70-71, Keegan Leahy 72-76, Nick Ottinger 77-78, Keegan Leahy 79-88, Nick Ottinger 89, Keegan Leahy 90-93, Nick Ottinger 94, Keegan Leahy 95-100.
Laps Led: Keegan Leahy 25, Chris Shearburn 18, Malik Ray 12, Chris Overland 9, Graham Bowlin 9, Bobby Zalenski 7, Zack Novak 5, Nick Ottinger 5, Christian Challiner 3, Justin Bolton 2, Corey Vincent 2, Kollin Keister 1, Brandon Kettelle 1, Michael Guest 1.
Caution Flags: None for 0 laps
Margin of Victory: .004 seconds