If there’s one lesson to be learned watching the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, it’s to never count out Ray Alfalla.
The four-time series champion won Tuesday night’s Coca-Cola 300 after a late-race pass on Malik Ray, becoming the ninth different winner in nine races this season.
Keegan Leahy started on pole for the third time this season — the sixth of the year for 23XI Racing.
It didn’t take long for action to heat up in the year’s longest race. At the end of Lap 1, Derek Justis lost control of his JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet, collecting John Gorlinsky and Taylor Hurst, making a long night even longer for drivers seeking their first wins of the season.
Leahy maintained control of the top spot after the caution and set sail on the first run of the race, creating a several-second gap over rookie Steven Wilson in second. Drivers seemingly learned their lesson from the Lap 1 crash and settled into a green-flag rhythm.
As the first fuel window opened, drivers had a decision to make: run the 200-lap race on two pit stops or three pit stops, hoping the speed would make up the difference of visiting pit road an additional time. Among those who pitted early was Leahy from the race lead, handing the lead to Roush Fenway Racing’s Steven Wilson.
Wilson, the rookie, held onto the lead until Lap 67 — a clear indication he’d planned to cut the race into thirds with two stops. The party was short-lived, however; worn tires made entering pit road at race speed tricky, and the No. 17 was forced to serve a 40-second penalty for speeding on pit entrance, knocking him out of contention.
— Roush Fenway (@roushfenway) May 26, 2021
After drivers completed their first pit stops — still under green — Leahy once again inherited the lead, still committed to the three-stop strategy.
But, just like any NASCAR race, there’s no sure thing; nothing’s predictable.
While the second round of green-flag pit stops kicked off past the race’s halfway point, Ryan Doucette’s car went for a slide into Turn 3, bringing out the race’s second caution and further complicating pit strategy.
"This changes everything."
A caution at the halfway point will shuffle a lot of strategies through the field.
— iRacing.com (@iRacing) May 26, 2021
Richmond winner Vicente Salas, who ran top five in the first half of the race, experienced a miscue on the ensuing batch of pit stops, making his visit to pit road a lap late and losing his early track position and progress.
On fresh tires, Casey Kirwan took over the top spot shortly after the restart for the Doucette spin, speeding past Leahy, who raced on slightly older tires. Kirwan’s XSET teammate Ryan Luza followed to move up to second.
The caution flew again on Lap 123 when Jake Matheson’s Williams Esports Ford crashed on the backstretch deep in the field with the XSET duo still running up front.
A potential top-five night went sour for Garrett Manes on Lap 129 after an accordion-style checkup triggered by Ryan Luza resulted in contact between Manes’ Toyota and Allen Boes’ Ford, sending Manes into the pit wall. In the picture of the race, it meant drivers might come close — really close — to making it to the finish without another pit stop. A mixed-bag strategy brought some drivers to pit road to top off on fuel, while others opted for track position.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 26, 2021
With his long-run speed prevailing — and with fuel mileage a question mark — Leahy climbed back to the top spot once again at the race’s 200-mile mark, ahead of Kirwan and Malik Ray.
But the fuel talk went out the window on Lap 163 when the race’s fifth caution flew.
While Ashton Crowder was slowing to pit road, an unsuspecting Jimmy Mullis ran into Crowder’s machine at full speed, snarling the two, along with Blade Whitt and Mitchell deJong. The field pitted for a fresh set of tires, setting up for a heads-up race with strategy talk out the window — after yet another caution when Chris Shearburn and Brad Davies tangled.
Malik Ray made his way to the race lead on a 27-to-go restart when Keegan Leahy slipped up the track in Turn 3 — just before another multi-car crash when Isaac Gann’s car broke loose.
Ray’s first checkered flag seemed to be in sight as the lap count dwindled. But there was one hard-charging obstacle in his mirror.
Ray Alfalla — by all accounts, the series G.O.A.T. — seemed to be driving a rocketship in the closing laps, passing cars left and right in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, reaching Malik Ray’s bumper without much time remaining.
With eight laps to go, Alfalla made a dive to the inside to clear Ray’s Spacestation Gaming Ford and never looked back, racing to the checkered flag by a nearly two-second margin of victory.
A late-race charge and pass for the 🏁?
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 26, 2021
The victory was Alfalla’s 26th — far and away the most out of anyone in the series — and he became the ninth different winner in nine races. But don’t etch his name into the playoff grid just yet; the No. 51 entered Charlotte ranked 36th in points, and he’ll need to crack the top 20 by August if he wants a shot at winning a fifth title — and a six-figure payday.
— Joe Gibbs Racing (@JoeGibbsRacing) May 26, 2021
Ray’s runner-up finish was his career-best after leading 17 laps. Ryan Luza finished third, while Leahy faded late to fourth. Former series champ Zack Novak rounded out the top five.
Alfalla’s win snapped a nearly year-long winless streak; his most recent victory came at Atlanta Motor Speedway, 361 days earlier. Alfalla also became the first driver to win at Charlotte twice, last winning there in 2017.
— Ray Alfalla (@rayalfalla) May 26, 2021
The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series heads next to Pocono Raceway on June 22.
Coca-Cola 300 Race Results