Bobby Zalenski’s about to race for $100,000.
With a nail-biting victory in overtime at Darlington Raceway, the driver for Letarte Esports won the opening race of the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series playoffs Tuesday night. Zalenski held off a surge by 23XI Racing’s Mitchell deJong in the final corner.
DeJong started on pole for the fifth time this season and showed his No. 23 Toyota had unmatched speed at the front of the pack, leading teammate Keegan Leahy under green until the opening round of pit stops around Lap 60.
Leahy, who pitted two laps sooner than deJong, used fresher tires and a successful green-flag pit stop to put his No. 32 out front for 11 laps until deJong made his way back to the point by Lap 79.
The first caution of the night flew just past the halfway point of the 250-mile race when playoff contender Bob Bryant went for a spin, setting up for a restart that quickly led way to a second caution mid-pack.
The unique timing of the Lap 107 of the 183-lapper caution meant some drivers who didn’t have deJong-like speed could take a gamble and attempt to stretch fuel—and more importantly at a tough track like Darlington, tires—to go the distance without making an additional green-flag pit stop.
As expected, once deJong and company peeled off to refuel and grab a fresh set of virtual Goodyears, others stayed out to inherit the lead on track, namely playoff contender Bobby Zalenski and trophy-hunter Ryan Luza, who missed the playoffs.
A green-flag stretch allowed the varying strategies to play out—some cars pitting to maintain speed, others nursing the tires and saving fuel to go the distance.
Nick Ottinger found himself the top car who opted to pit midway through the run, just ahead of deJong. The duo sliced through the field, easily making time past cars on worn tires.
An aggressive three-wide move with 16 to go put deJong back out ahead of Ottinger (of the cars who pitted, that is), while they continued to race all the way up to the top five.
With six laps to go, deJong looked to the inside of Luza, on worn tires, for second place, but a caution for a crash between Brad Davies and Garrett Manes changed the complexion of the race yet again with Zalenski still out in front. The leaders—from both strategies—pitted, setting up for an even playing field and an overtime run to the finish.
A checkered flag, of course, meant an automatic trip to the Championship 4 for any one of the 10 playoff drivers in the field.
Zalenski retained the lead off pit road, shedding any need to worry about tires or fuel and instead shifting the focus to winning: nailing the restart and keeping the extraordinarily-fast deJong behind him, among others.
With cars racing in close quarters and tensions high, a crash quickly erupted once again on the first overtime restart deep in the field, snarling a once-fast Leahy. Another overtime meant another restart up front for Zalenski.
Zalenski kept his No. 83 car planted at the front of the field on the restart, deJong’s car growing larger in his mirror. With the checkered flag in sight and with one corner to go—one corner to clinch a spot in the Championship 4—deJong entered the narrow Turn 3 deep, positioning his car alongside Zalenski’s Chevrolet. It was now or never.
The outside lane’s momentum proved advantageous for Zalenski, who beat deJong to the line by 0.136 seconds. It was Zalenski’s second win of the season, joining deJong as the only driver to win two races in 2021. Zalenski also visited Victory Lane at Pocono Raceway June 22.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 1, 2021
The win, the 10th of Zalenski’s career, locked him into the championship race at Texas Motor Speedway Oct. 12, where the winner will earn a $100,000 payout. Zalenski’s victory ties him for fifth-most all-time with Kenny Humpe.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 1, 2021
Casey Kirwan finished third, just ahead of XSET teammate Luza. Jimmy Mullis rounded out the top five.
I can't believe it y'all. To the Championship 4 we go! Sometimes your strategy ends up being big brain 🤣 pic.twitter.com/zsygvKTXlS
— Bobby Zalenski (@bobbyzalenski) September 1, 2021
Three races remain until a champion is crowned. The playoffs continue at Bristol Motor Speedway Sept. 14, where another driver will look to join Zalenski and two others in the battle for the championship.