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Conti escapes last-lap pileup to win at Daytona

Michael Conti dodged a multi-car, last-lap crash at Daytona to pick up a victory in the caution-free eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series season opener Monday.

Intensity was palpable to begin the 2021 Coca-Cola iRacing Series season. After all, bigger prizes, an enhanced playoff format and a talented crop of 11 rookies made the series feel bigger than ever.

Mitchell deJong, making his first-ever start, put his 23XI Racing Toyota on pole. He led the way early — though, as superspeedway racing goes, it wasn’t for long.

The draft pack wasted no time forming multiple grooves; even with a 100-lap evening ahead, aggressive moves filled the field from front to back. And who could blame the drivers with $330,000 on the line, there’s no reason to take it easy, even in the opening laps in the first race of the 18-event season.

In typical Daytona fashion, the intensity had to come to a head at one point or another.

A mess on Lap 31 snarled former series champs Ryan Luza and Zack Novak, as well as superspeedway expert Malik Ray, ending their hopes at Daytona glory before the one-third mark.

The first round of pit stops — a mad dash from the lead pack on Lap 37 — was the site of another dramatic moment, when series veteran Brian Schoenburg tagged rookie Garrett Manes under heavy braking entering pit road. Despite the contact, Manes still managed to slow his Elliott Sadler eSports Toyota to pit speed in time.

Two- and three-wide racing was the theme of the following run, as it was for much of the race — even with plenty of time left. Front-of-pack fixtures included Femi Olat — who led the most laps — and fellow rookie Zack Nichols, as well as Graham Bowlin, Bobby Zalenski, and Casey Kirwan. Still, the final round of green-flag pit stops loomed.

Heartbreak struck Nichols, driving for Williams Esports, when he pulled his Ford off the track from the lead and onto pit road with 26 laps to go, exceeding the speed limit on entry when stakes were at their highest. The aggressive pit entry resulted in a penalty that knocked the No. 29 out of contention.

Nichols’ pit stop penalty wasn’t the only tense incident during the final round of pit stops. Derek Justis, making his series debut for JTG Daugherty Racing, sped on pit road, spoiling a promising run. Meanwhile, McLaren Shadow’s Allen Boes went for a spin exiting pit road on worn tires.

With pit stops out of the way and the checkered flag in sight, the intensity turned up a notch. The field turned into a three-wide gridlock throughout a dozens-strong lead pack led by Conti, Logan Clampitt and Manes.

The lap count dwindled while the pack remained in three-wide formation. Conti on the bottom, Clampitt stuck in the middle and defending series champ Nick Ottinger leading the charge on the outside.

In the final corner, Michael Guest and Clampitt made contact, triggering a multi-car crash, swallowing up Ottinger, Clampitt, and well over a dozen others. Yes, the Big One.

Conti raced to the checkered flag virtually unchallenged — the field collected in carnage in his rearview mirror — picking up the 11th victory of his career. It was the first time since he made his Coca-Cola iRacing Series debut in 2011 that he won at a superspeedway.

The win meant, assuming Conti maintains a top-20 points position, he’s a lock for this year’s playoffs, which begin in August at Darlington Raceway.

Guest finished second, his career best, while rookie Jake Matheson escaped the last-lap crash to finish third. Corey Vincent and Isaac Gann rounded out the top five.

Maybe it was that red Dale Earnhardt Jr.-owned No. 8 car that made the difference — it is Daytona, after all.

Catch the second round of the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series from Homestead-Miami Speedway on Feb. 23.

Race Results

Daytona Opener Race Results Enascar Coke Series 2021