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PEAK Series Playoffs Watch: Darlington tames championship hopefuls

The eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series kicked off the first race of its four-race playoffs Tuesday night at Darlington Raceway. For the eight playoff contenders, a win in the three races leading up to the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale guarantees a shot at their share of $100,000 in prizes for winning the championship race.

Ashton Crowder of Burton-Kligerman Esports took home his first-ever checkered flag, surviving a tense second half of the race and playing spoiler to a stacked playoff field where a win would have guaranteed a shot in the championship race in Miami. Crowder, a rookie, led 33 circuits late in the race-the first laps he’s led in 15 series starts-and warded off a late-race tear through the field by Zack Novak.

Just two of the eight playoff contenders finished in the top 10 at the track “Too Tough to Tame.” Of the championship hopefuls, Roush Fenway Racing’s Zack Novak led the way with a surge up to second place in the final run of the race, recovering from near-disaster on Lap 115 when his Ford turned sideways after contact with Nickolas Shelton.

But, the driver to beat for much of the night was unquestionably G2 Esports’ Keegan Leahy, who led 110 of the race’s 183 laps. Leahy, however, fought with ill-timed cautions and ultimately lost track position when it mattered, coming home fifth.

Despite high hopes entering the playoffs, Darlington wasn’t kind to Jimmy Mullis of Richmond Raceway eSports, one of the handful of playoff drivers to run into trouble. Mullis qualified a disappointing 33rd, navigated his way through a crash, but ultimately had any hope of a solid finished removed by a crash with 23 laps to go.

Unfortunately for Mullis, it’s been the trend following his win at Pocono last month-the No. 46 car’s finishes have since been 33rd (Michigan), 11th (Bristol), and 26th (Darlington). He’s 31 points off the lead with two more shots to reach the top four.

It’s particularly notable that a non-playoff driver won Darlington, which means at least two drivers are guaranteed a spot on points in the championship battle in Miami-and, at the same time, it means nobody is safe from falling out of the top four. Just Indianapolis and the Charlotte Road Course remain, and a win for any playoff driver guarantees a shot at the title.

1. Zack Novak (2,049 points)
2. Keegan Leahy -5
3. Michael Conti -19
4. Ryan Luza -22
5. Garrett Lowe -24 (-2 from fourth)
6. Bobby Zalenski -25 (-3)
7. Jimmy Mullis -31 (-9)
8. Blake Reynolds -31 (-9)

The eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series marches on closer to crowning a champion and awarding over $100,000, racing next at Indianapolis on September 10.