WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Audio and recap by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Speed77 Radio and Race Chaser Online — Brandon Hastings/iRacing.com photo — Call him the road warrior.
17-year-old Michael Conti made the nickname very apt on Tuesday night during Round 13 of the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series (NPAS) powered by iRacing.com as he drove the “Back to School” Main Performance PC bus — also known as the #5 Chevrolet SS — to Victory Lane at Watkins Glen International in the first-ever road course race for iRacing’s only NASCAR-sanctioned series.
After starting on the pole — also his third of the year — with a lap of 1.11.873 seconds (122.917 mph), Conti navigated masterfully through lapped traffic in the closing laps of the 50-lap non-caution affair and held off a furious charge from the Rheem Toyota of fellow championship contender Nick Ottinger to pick up his third win of the season, most among all drivers.
Conti, who had only been scheduled to run a partial schedule in 2014, has said repeatedly in 2014 that he would keep driving as long as it was fun.
“It’s definitely still a lot of fun; I had a great time tonight,” a jubilant Conti said in Gatorade Victory Lane. “It’s great to finally get this series to a road course; myself and a lot of the drivers have been pushing to get this series to a road course for quite some time now and Watkins Glen is a great track.”
Despite as dominant a run as he had — leading 47 of the 50 laps — Conti still was frustrated with his car, voicing loud complaints over the radio as the race wore on, something rarely heard from the young New Jersey pilot.
“It’s a good thing this race was a 50-lap race and not a 60-lap race because Nick was closing there and I think he would have had it if we had to go much further. It just seemed like the tires were overinflated or something — we had a lot of hot lap speed, but the long runs just weren’t there; it felt like we had 50 laps on the tires every lap,” Conti quipped. “I try hard normally not to complain all that much; it was really tough though because the track was slick as well, and the lap traffic got really heavy there at the end. All in all, it was a great race from my seat and I’m proud of this team tonight — I think with this third win we’ve got a ton of momentum headed into the Chase.”
As much as no one wanted to admit it, the race was over almost at the opening lap with Conti darting away from the field and two-time NPAS champion Ray Alfalla moving up the inside to grab second. By the time the first lap was over, Conti already had a seven-car length advantage as chaos erupted behind him when Rob Ackley went around after contact with Bryan Blackford off of Turn 7, causing heavy right side damage to Ackley’s machine.
Two laps later on lap 3, two simultaneous incidents ended the nights of two prominent names in the series — Joey Brown missed a shift and blew his motor entering the bus stop chicane and Kenny Humpe went through a messy flip that ended his evening.
By the time the race reached quarter-distance at Lap 12, Conti had built up a three second lead over Alfalla, Ottinger, road-regular P.J. Stergios and Matt Bussa, but back in the pack the carnage continued as Mitchell Hunt clipped the sand barrels and flipped at the entrance to pit road.
As Hunt retired to the garage area, Nick Ottinger began the cycle of pit stops for the race leaders, pitting on lap 21 and seeing Conti and Alfalla follow him a lap and two laps later, respectively. Alfalla led a lap and Danny Hansen led two before the field cycled through at halfway and Conti regained the lead by four seconds ahead of now Ottinger in second, Alfalla third, P.J. Stergios and Matt Bussa.
Over the next ten laps, Ottinger would methodically shave a second off of Conti’s lead, and that gap would further shrink when Cody Byus spun right in front of Conti off of Turn 7 and impacted the pit entrance wall. By the time the field came around for six laps to go, Conti had slipped off of Turn 7 two laps earlier and was in heavier lap traffic, cutting the gap to 1.9 seconds.
But despite Ottinger’s best efforts, a hard-fighting tail-of-the-lead-lap Landon Harrison and Thomas Lewandowski crashing in front of the leaders in the bus stop coming to the white flag, Conti held on for a 1.615 second victory over the Rheem machine at the checkered flag. Alfalla came home third but lost the championship lead to Conti with the drops factored in.
P.J. Stergios and Matt Bussa completed the top five. Positions six through ten were filled by Jake Stergios, Chris Overland, Danny Hansen, Michael Johnson and Adam Gilliland.
Conti takes a 23-point lead over Alfalla into the series’ next event at Atlanta.
With the “regular season” done, the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series field now turns its attention to the Final Four: Atlanta, Darlington, Richmond and Homestead. Four very different tracks will test the championship-contending drivers to their limit and with no drops remaining, if you have a bad race you could be out of the title chase. Who will it be in the Peach State? Will it be Michael Conti grabbing his fourth win of the season? Will it be Alfalla sneaking up to charge for his third series crown? Or will it be someone else entirely, perhaps defending Atlanta winner Joey Brown?
Find out in two weeks at 9 PM Eastern on Tuesday, August 26th with exclusive content and coverage on iRacing.com, PSRTV, the Motor Racing Network and right here at Race Chaser Online!
Audio with race winner Michael Conti: