With a championship and the top 25 points positions – and their guaranteed berths in the 2012 iRacing World Championship – in the balance, the NASCAR iRacing.com Pro Series headed to Kentucky Speedway for the last race of the season. Alex Warren came into the finale with a three-point lead in the standings, needing a finish of 12th of better to clinch the title while Marcus Lindsey, Patrick Baldwin, Kevin King, Richie Davidowitz and Nick Ottinger looked to overhaul him in the standings with strong finishes. Also, Josh Connors, PJ Stergios, Matt Sentell, Kenneth O'Keefe and Mitchell Hunt were among the sim racers hoping to lock in a spot in the top 25 in points and secure their place in the 2012 NASCAR iRacing.com Series World Championship.
On his way to the NiPS title, Warren (82) leads eventual race winner Baldwin (52) and Ottinger (05) whose title bid was destined to be derailed.
Kentucky is one of the hardest tracks on the schedule to complete an overtaking maneuver, so qualifying figured to play an important role in the battles for the online racing championship and the top 25 in points. Warren duly qualified on the pole ahead of Robert Hall, Baldwin and Ottinger, and it did not take long for business to pick up once the green flag waved. On lap four, Kenneth O'Keefe got loose entering Turn 3 causing Hunt to get into the back of King. All three cars suffered significant damage, seriously hurting the chances of O'Keefe and Hunt of making the top 25 in points.
On the ensuing restart, another driver on the bubble encountered trouble. This time, Paul Kusheba found the inside wall on the back straightaway, heavily damaging his car and putting him in danger of falling out of the top 25. Kusheba pitted for repairs, but by the time he returned to action he was already a lap down.
The race finally settled into a green flag run after the third yellow and Baldwin took full advantage, taking the lead from Warren on lap 27. Ottinger also passed Warren, moving up to second position as he tried to run down Baldwin in pursuit of the NiPS title. Baldwin was having none of it, however, and by lap 50 had stretched his lead to a full second and continued to inch away from the field.
He gained even more ground during the first round of green flag pit stops. Everyone got on and off pit road cleanly, and Baldwin emerged with a two second lead over Ottinger. But Ottinger's fortunes took a turn for the worse on lap 76 when Brandon Buchberger turned-him around entering Turn 3. The crash knocked Ottinger from NiPS title contention.
The resulting yellow was a huge break for Adam Gilliland, Carson McClelland, Jake Stergios and Del Mears, who moved to the front after the leaders all pitted to top off with fuel under the caution. All four drivers had been saving fuel on the previous run and were now good to go without an extra pit stop. Gilliland would restart as the leader, with McClelland in second. Holding off Baldwin, who restarted fifth, would not be easy though.
Baldwin made quick work of the four interlopers, retaking the lead on lap 89. With only 44 laps to go, the rest of the field would be hard-pressed to catch Baldwin without some luck. The field got what they needed – a flurry of cautions. Several drivers were taken out in the wrecks including championship contender King and bubble driver Mears, who couldn't keep the track position he gained with his pit strategy.
Del Mears' (23) bid for a berth in the 2012 NASCAR iRacing.com Series World Championship ended in this melee.
Even with all the yellows, Warren kept his nose clean through the mess. Holding fifth spot as the laps wound down, he was in position to clinch the championship if nothing crazy happened on the final restart of the race. It would all come down to a four lap dash for the checkers, with Baldwin still leading Gilliland, Jon Adams and Michael Conti.
Baldwin took the green, quickly built a sizable gap on the field and easily cruised to the victory. Adams advanced one spot to finish ahead of Gilliland and Conti, while Warren held on for fifth to secure the 2011 NiPS championship by nine points over Baldwin. Whitten came home seventh and secured third in the NiPS standings, 18 points back of the lead, with Lindsey and Davidowitz rounding out the top five in the overall championship.
The battle for the top 25 came down to the final laps but, in the end, the status quo was maintained. Connors retained the final transfer spot while Justin Trombley, PJ Stergios, and Kenneth O'Keefe just missed the cut and will have to try again next year. The heartbreak of the race award would have to go to Stergios, who worked his way up to seventh spot in the final laps in his efforts to qualify for the 2012 NiSWC. The 38 points for seventh would have done the trick, but Stergios got black-flagged on the last restart for changing lanes too quickly, ending any chance of making the cut.
With the 2011 NiPS now in the books, the field of 50 drivers is set for the 2012 NiSWC season. Ray Alfalla will be facing his toughest competition yet as he looks to earn a second world championship, with Warren and the rest of the newcomers looking to make an immediate impact even as the veteran NiSWC competitors seek to dethrone the defending champion.
It all gets under way next month at Daytona International Speedway. Make sure to tune into PSRTV's broadcast on iRacing.com for all the action!
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