Bob Bryant’s no stranger to Victory Lane when it comes to sim racing, but he’d never won a race in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series — until now.
The series sophomore, who made a name for himself racing in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s private leagues before the days of iRacing, picked up his first-career victory in a caution-free, strategy-filled 100-lap showdown at the virtual Auto Club Speedway Tuesday night.
Overwhelmed with happiness. This is the most difficult series on earth. I'm so thankful to the Drill Aisle and Team Conti guys that help make this car go fast, @KligermanSport for believing in me and @Valvoline for all of their support. PLAYOFFS BABY!!!#eNASCAR https://t.co/12Sz9NIJnx
— Bob Bryant (@BBryant53) March 31, 2021
Keegan Leahy started on pole for the second time in 2021 and the fourth time in five races for 23XI Racing, immediately setting sail at the front of the pack once the race went green. Teammate Mitchell deJong quickly made his way to second, though no car seemed to have pace to keep up with Leahy.
Ryan Luza, a two-time Fontana winner favored to make some noise Tuesday, tagged the wall early while battling with defending series champion Nick Ottinger. The contact knocked Luza’s XSET Gaming Ford out of contention, putting the team’s lead atop the series team standings at risk and making for a long night for the 2017 champ.
Leahy ducked off to pit road from the lead on Lap 20 — by far the earliest car to stop. With a win in the bank from Homestead-Miami Speedway, the No. 32 could afford to gamble, and took advantage of that fact. Michael Conti took over the lead after Leahy’s stop.
With Leahy on an alternate strategy, Conti swapped the lead with Ottinger and Bobby Zalenski, the veterans using every groove available on the wide, high-speed two-mile track, no driver able to establish a lead in the way Leahy had before pitting.
The batch of leaders — and the bulk of the field — pulled off to pit under green at the one-third mark of the race, setting up for a two-stop strategy in the evening’s 100-lapper. Matt Bussa and Derek Justis took over up front, planning to stretch tires and fuel to the halfway point to minimize time spent on pit road. And with a green-flag look to the race, why not? After all, a win — on speed or on strategy — could mean a spot in the playoffs and a shot at a six-figure championship payday.
Once the field cycled through their first (and only, in some cases) green-flag pit stops, Leahy resumed his place at the point, a two-second cushion over Zalenski and deJong. Shortly after, he made his final green-flag stop on Lap 57 — again, all alone, on an oddball strategy.
Daytona winner Conti opted to make his final stop shortly after Leahy, seemingly deviating from his original strategy, making the middle run his shortest of the evening.
Derek Justis emerged as the fastest single-stopper, pacing the field in his JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet late — with plenty of help from the fuel-saving clutch pedal.
The Justis lead quickly evaporated when a hard-charging Bob Bryant took over the top spot with just under 25 laps to go, Bryant’s Kligerman Sport teammate Isaac Gann just behind the pair in third.
With the laps winding down, Bryant continued to tiptoe at the front of the pack, watching the leaderboard for approaching cars on fresher, faster tires, anticipating their moves.
But those moves never came.
The No. 77 paced the field all the way to the checkered flag, unchallenged by the faster cars, who proved non-factors when it came time to finish the night. Bryant’s strategy — despite starting deep in the field in 26th position — proved the superior one, and his experience sim racing no doubt played a hand in his latest triumph.
Justis, the rookie, held on to finish second, while Gann came home third to give Kligerman Sport another spot on the podium. John Gorlinsky and Matt Bussa rounded out the top five.
WOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! Awesome job by @BBryant53 with one of the smartest wins I’ve ever seen
— Parker Kligerman (@pkligerman) March 31, 2021
The 33-year-old became the 55th different winner in the Coca-Cola iRacing Series, and the win marks the second consecutive at Fontana for Kligerman Sport.
I think @BBryant53 was a little excited to pick up that first win 🏁🗣
— Kligerman Sport (@KligermanSport) March 31, 2021
Bryant’s victory continues a streak parallelling the NASCAR Cup Series — a different race winner in every event so far this year. A total of 10 drivers will make the series playoffs beginning in August, and a win guarantees a spot. With $100,000 on the line for winning the championship, wins matter.
The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series heads next to Richmond Raceway on April 13.