Ryan Luza may not have made the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series playoffs, but he was still able to leave a mark on the playoff picture.
Luza used pit strategy and fresh tires to win the playoff opener at the virtual Bristol Motor Speedway on Tuesday night (Sept. 13). It was the first win of 2022 for Luza and the 17th of an illustrious career for the 2017 series champion.
“I thought we had plenty of time [to get to the front with fresher tires] if we went green,” Luza told Steve Letarte post-race. “Luckily, I was able to get through and make a couple of three-wide moves to get to the front. It came 0ne race too late [for the playoffs], but we’ll take it.”
— XSET (@XSET) September 14, 2022
Two factors defined the first half of the race: clean racing and the dominance of Keegan Leahy. As soon as the green flag dropped at the Last Great Colosseum, Leahy set sail from the pole position in his No. 45 Virtual Racing School/23XI Racing Toyota, growing a lead as large as 3.5 seconds over second place Bobby Zalenski. The laps clicked off quickly and green flag pit stops were rapidly approaching.
The tone of the race changed entirely on lap 76 with the first of five cautions when Corey Vincent, Logan Clampitt and Darik Bourdeau wrecked on the backstretch. This set off a round of pit stops close to the fuel window to make it to the end.
The yellow flag would wave again on lap 98, only this time several playoff drivers would get caught up in the mess. Mitchell deJong, in his #23 Logitech/23XI Racing Toyota, made contact with Steven Wilson in the #10 Smithfield/Stewart-Haas eSports Ford on the frontstretch, setting off a chain reaction that damaged both of their cars as well as fellow playoff drivers Casey Kirwan and Matt Bussa, among others.
From there, the caution came out three more times for crashes in the closing laps, all of which involved at least one playoff driver. Graham Bowlin in the No. 48 Charlotte Phoenix Toyota got damage on lap 107, Bussa got dinged up again on lap 117 and Nick Ottinger and Femi Olatunbosun got tangled in the final wreck of the race on lap 140.
— Justin Melillo (@justinmelillo) September 14, 2022
The litany of cautions set the stage for intriguing pit strategy, with some drivers like Zalenski staying out and others like Luza opting to take fresh tires. The final restart came with 29 laps to go, and it was fresh rubber that ultimately won the day when Luza passed Kollin Keister for the lead with 24 laps remaining. Cody Byus rode a similar strategy to a runner-up finish.
“After the season we’ve had, it was a very much needed P2 tonight,” Byus said. “We’ve had speed at times, but just haven’t been able to put together finishes.”
Four-time series champion Ray Alfalla came home third, followed by Blake Reynolds and Garrett Lowe rounding out the top five. Lowe was one of only two playoff drivers in the top 10, along with Wilson in 10th place.
Odds & Ends
- Paint Scheme of the Week: The cars of the 10 playoff drivers each got a slight makeover ahead of the Bristol race, with red banners across the top of the windshield, red roof numbers and red splitters to signify the driver’s playoff status.
- New this year: the Championship 4 drivers will race the season finale live from the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., with Dale Earnhardt Jr. presenting the championship trophy. The championship race will be contested on Tuesday, Oct. 25 on the virtual Phoenix Raceway.
- In an interview with Alan Cavanna during the Countdown to Green pre-race show, Liam Brotherton, driver of the #2 Elliott Sadler eSports Chevrolet, announced his retirement from the Coca-Cola iRacing Series at the conclusion of the 2022 season. Sadler was interviewed later in the show, but he did not mention a replacement driver for Brotherton in 2023.
- With his victory, Luza has won at least one race in each of his six full-time Coca-Cola iRacing seasons.
After how the first 10 races went, I'm grateful and lucky to be here in the playoffs. A nice sight to see those red banners. Not sure how I feel about the car tonight, but I'm gonna give it my best 👊@interstatebatts x @JoeGibbsRacing
— Bobby Zalenski (@bobbyzalenski) September 13, 2022
Luza’s win means that no playoff driver has clinched their spot in the championship race. With his top-10 finish, Wilson was able to hang onto his spot atop the playoff grid by a single point over Lowe, who was able to jump from ninth to second in the standings by being the only playoff driver in the top five. Ottinger took the biggest tumble down the standings, falling from a tie for second to eighth on the playoff grid after settling for 30th place at Bristol.
The Round of 10 in the Coca-Cola iRacing Playoffs presses on to the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway for 70 laps around the 2.66-mile oval. The coverage begins with Countdown to Green at 8:30 p.m. ET and the race to follow at 9 p.m. It will be broadcast live on eNASCAR.com/live, YouTube.com/iRacing and Twitch.tv/iRacing.
About the author
Andrew Stoddard joined Frontstretch in May of 2022 as an iRacing contributor. He is a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Richmond, and VCU. He has a new day job as an athletic communications specialist at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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