Screen Shot 2020 10 27 At 11.10.49 Pm

Conti comes up clutch, punches Champ 4 ticket


Two weeks ago, it looked like the end of the playoffs for Michael Conti after a shifting error ended his race early at the Charlotte Roval. Tuesday night at Texas Motor Speedway – the final stop on the way to the championship finale for the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series – Michael Conti was nothing short of, well, clutch.

Conti, a series veteran – nine-time race winner and former champ – hadn’t won a race in two years. He found himself inside a massive points deficit after a shaky start to the playoffs, and was, by many accounts, considered out of the running for this year’s championship.

The only way Conti could advance to compete for the trophy and $100,000 would be to win at Texas – and that’s exactly what he did, scoring the victory and cementing himself into the Championship 4.

Joe Gibbs Racing rookie Graham Bowlin started on pole for Tuesday night’s race, his second this season. Denny Hamlin Racing’s Keegan Leahy, who, like Conti, entered the race in a virtually must-win situation, wasted no time taking over the top spot.

An early caution jumbled up the pit strategy right from the early stages of the race. Most of the leaders stayed on the track, while a handful opted to take one of their four extra sets of tires in an attempt to make up ground. One of those drivers was Bob Bryant, who set sail on the ensuing restart, marching his way from mid-pack to the lead, kicking off a long green-flag run. Michael Guest and Casey Kirwan also found themselves cycling through the first position along the way.

A caution on Lap 69 – in the midst of green-flag pit stops – changed the complexion of the playoff picture. While Ray Alfalla slowed to enter pit road, fellow playoff contender Ryan Luza tagged Alfalla’s Team VRS Chevrolet, damaging the two cars and spinning bystander Jarl Teien. The crash set up for the race’s second caution while Conti found himself leading, just as he was primed to take his JR Motorsports car to pit road.

Conti’s stroke of good luck put himself far ahead of most other playoff contenders throughout the second long green-flag run of the race; the only other contender in the top dozen was Alfalla, whose Lap 69 crash damage didn’t do much to slow the four-time Coca-Cola iRacing Series champion.

Roush Fenway Racing’s rookie driver Kollin Keister, ineligible for the playoffs, bested Conti midway through the middle portion of the race to claim the race lead. Meanwhile, increasingly desperate playoff contenders Leahy and Garrett Lowe made their way to pit road to kick off the second round of green-flag pit stops, hoping undercutting the competition on tire strategy might make a difference to overcome Conti and Alfalla.

Following pit stops, it was Alfalla who found himself atop the leaderboard, but quickly fell to fourth when fresher tires from Keister, Conti, and Logan Clampitt outpaced the No. 2. Soon after, Conti made his way back to the lead, Clampitt – his roommate – in tow.

It seemed like smooth sailing for Conti, who couldn’t settle for second.

Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy for the 2014 Coca-Cola iRacing Series champ.

A crash with 25 laps to go involving Chris Overland and Chris Shearburn brought out the caution and bunched up the field, bringing players like Alfalla back into the mix and on equal tire footing with Conti.

On the restart, the field still had nothing for the No. 8, who stretched out his lead in front of Clampitt; Alfalla, meanwhile, went the wrong way, and faded out of contention.

The intensity level raised another couple of notches when a flurry of crashes deep in the field slowed the race with Conti still out in front.

A pileup with five laps to go when Logan Clampitt and Keister tangled while racing for second triggered a massive crash, collecting a dozen-plus cars. The crash ended the playoff runs for championship hopefuls Lowe and Alfalla, who had promising runs prior to the incident.

The crash set up for an overtime finish, and with Conti’s wingman Clampitt out of the picture, it meant Conti would have to ward off challenges on his own.

With hard-charging Keister and Graham Bowlin in hot pursuit, Conti took off on the overtime restart in control of the race. His goal: complete two clean laps and earn a shot at $100,000 on the line.

The always-calm demeanor must have made the difference for the veteran – Conti held on for the victory, shattering his two-year, 37-race winless streak, and more importantly, saving his seat in the Championship 4.

Conti’s JR Motorsports teammate Brad Davies slipped past a final-corner crash to finish second – the first 1-2 finish for the team. Championship finalist Bobby Zalenski finished third, while Clampitt and Keister rounded out the top five.

The victory means Michael Conti advances to the Coca-Cola iRacing Series Championship 4, joining Bobby Zalenski and Nick Ottinger, who’d already clinched their spots with wins in previous playoff races. The fourth finalist position went to Ryan Luza, who marched on to finish 25th despite his early crash damage.

Conti’s win was the 10th of his career, tying him for fourth-most all-time with Kenny Humpe.

Now, when we say "Conti’s clutch," the reference is no longer to the shifting error at the Charlotte Roval; it’s a reference to his Texas victory.

Texas also spelled the end of the road for championship hopefuls Alfalla, Leahy, Lowe, and Jimmy Mullis – each of whom were still in contention in the closing laps.

The 2020 season all comes down to next week. Homestead-Miami Speedway will host the championship race Monday, where the best among the four title contenders will take home $100,000, part of a $300,000 total season prize pool.

Don’t miss the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series championship finale Monday (Nov. 2). Coverage starts at 8 p.m. ET on https://enascar.com/live.

Texas Playoffs Enascar 2020 Results Coca Cola Series