Race Weekend Central

MNR Review: Leighton Sibille Sneaks Into Playoffs, Talladega Produces Thrills

This MNR Review is presented by Monday Night Racing. 

On Monday, Jan. 2, the Interstate Batteries Monday Night Racing Pro Series returned from its holiday break for the running of the Rebilas Photo 225 in NASCAR Next Gen cars at Talladega Superspeedway, the regular season finale of season six. Needing a victory to make the playoffs, Leighton Sibille got just that, piloting his No. 25 Tufco Flooring Chevrolet to victory lane and a spot in the MNR playoffs.

Michael Fisher was right behind him in second, and Bailey Turner finished third. Mark Rebilas fittingly finished fourth in a race that bore his last name while Corey Heim completed the top five.

See also
Leighton Sibille Wins at Talladega, Makes Monday Night Racing Playoffs

Check out the race recap from Frontstretch’s Joy Tomlinson here. Also, you can view the full race broadcast, along with the Frontstretch post-race show featuring Brandon Hauff and Michael Massie, on the Frontstretch YouTube Channel. Here are five main points from an exciting race:

1) Sibille Snags Playoff Spot at Last Second

Going into the regular season finale, Sibille knew he had a tough hill to climb, needing a win at arguably the most chaotic track on the MNR circuit to make the playoffs.

“We’ve had a junk season,” Sibille told Podium eSports’ Blake McCandless and Jacob Hitz. “It’s just been awful every week. We came to Talladega with only one goal in mind, and that was to win the race.”

Sibille’s season-long adversity carried over into the regular season finale. While his night got off to a good start with a ninth-place qualifying, Sibille found himself in trouble when he got caught up in a lap 34 crash that brought out the second of seven caution flags in the 100-lap event.

The driver who works for Petty GMS public relations as his full-time gig also had issues on pit road as he was caught speeding on a green-flag pit stop. However, he was able to maintain on spot on the lead lap when the caution came back out. All of these problems had Sibille seemingly out of contention at the start of overtime.

“I was in 36th place on that first green-white-checkered attempt,” Sibille remarked. “Holes were opening up, and I was making holes to the front.”

For the third and final overtime, Sibille restarted 18th, sneaking his way past a huge wreck to be eighth at the white flag. From there, he dodged another wreck among the leaders and made the right moves to take the checkered flag and become the eighth different winner in eight races this MNR season.  

2) ‘Dega Gonna ‘Dega

In both iRacing and the real world, the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation for producing crazy racing and wild wrecks. In this regard, the high-banked oval in Alabama did not disappoint.

Overall, 14 of the 42 drivers in the field on Monday night led at least one lap, with lead changes aplenty due to the nature of the draft and the Next Gen car. This allowed for both comers and goers throughout the race.

While battles for the lead were frequent, the race started out relatively clean. In total, there were only three cautions in the first 90 laps, and one of those yellow flags was accidentally brought out by race control. The first two yellows were for wrecks on laps 16 and 34, but neither crash quite fit the definition of a traditional Talladega “Big One.”

However, as the laps wound down and the tension rose, the typical superspeedway carnage began. There were a total of four cautions across the final 17 laps of the race, and each wreck had significant playoff implications.

On lap 93, Will Rodgers in the No. 7 was among those caught up in a crash in turns 3 and 4, which would ultimately cost him his spot in the playoffs. Four laps later, a Big One in turn 2 collected Rodgers, Heim, George Balfanz Jr. and DJ Cummings.

Wrecks in the first and second overtime would take out drivers like Connor Barry, Sage Karam, James Bickford and many more. The field would wreck again multiple times in the third and final overtime, but Josh Mendoza in race control opted to let the race finish under green.

“That racing was the product of the beast,” Ryan Vargas told the Frontstretch post-race show. “Once I got shuffled out on the final lap, I just began to play the defensive game.”

Vargas came into the race holding the 12th and final playoff spot, and his eighth-place finish was ultimately enough to keep his spot in the postseason.   

Following the race, MNR leadership looked into how the league can have cleaner racing going forward. They ultimately had the drivers vote on whether to get rid of fast repairs or keep the current rule of each driver having one fast repair each race. The majority voted to get rid of fast repairs, so there will no longer be fast repairs for the playoffs in a league that had unlimited fast repairs in its early days. 

3) Penalties Shuffle Running Order

Even after the checkered flag flew over Talladega, it took about 30 minutes or so to verify the results and solidify the lineup of the 12 playoff drivers.

Due to the many wrecks in the third and final overtime, race control needed to review the footage and assign penalties to those who caused the wrecks. Rodgers and Steve Auffant were both assessed end of the longest line penalties, falling to 28th and 29th in the final running order.

Rodgers’ penalty was for causing two incidents, including coming up into Collin Fern and spinning him in the final overtime. Fern believed it was intentional. As for Auffant, race control deemed he caused a wreck during that span as well. 

Matt Stallknecht in the No. 41 was also checked for a penalty but was only issued a warning after coming up into Justin Melillo while avoiding a wreck. Stallknecht would hang onto take the final playoff spot while Melillo failed to make it in. 

Pit road also caused a fair share of problems, with speeding penalties being assessed to several drivers, including Melillo, Heim, Rodgers, Brett Baldeck and race winner Sibille.

4) Notable Names Out of Playoffs

In an ultra-competitive season six of MNR, many notable drivers find themselves on the outside, looking in for the playoffs.

Of the 12 drivers that made the MNR playoffs in season five, six of them will not be a part of the postseason in season six: Anthony Alfredo, Balfanz, Max Kennon, Bickford, Rodgers and Gary Sexton. Alfredo and Bickford were part of the Championship 4 last season. 

For some, their chances to make the playoffs ended before the green flag. Alfredo’s continued iRacing connection issues forced him to sit out, while Rajah Caruth was unavailable due to travel issues. Josh Bilicki, who went into the regular season finale only 11 points below the cut line, also could not participate due to travel.

For others, the textbook chaos of Talladega derailed their postseason hopes. Melillo’s streak of near-misses continues, as he will miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season after starting the race as the last person outside the playoffs, just seven points below the cut line.

Melillo started the race in second next to polesitter David Schildhouse, and he seemed poised to be a contender early on. However, Melillo lost his track position, and a series of late-race incidents, including the one with Stallknecht on the final run, relegated him to a 37th-place finish.

NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Alex Labbe and MNR founder Ford Martin were also within striking distance of the playoffs at just nine points below the cut line. Unfortunately, they could not make the moves to close that points gap. Martin’s seventh-place finish was ultimately not enough, and Labbe had to settle for 19th in the final results.

5) Next Up: Previewing the Playoffs

The playoff field of 12 is now set, with seven of the spots taken by race winners Adam Cabot, Presley Sorah, Schildhouse, Garrett Smithley, Heim, Chase Cabre and Sibille. Karam, the winner at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, is ineligible for the playoffs because he did not make enough starts this season.

Joey Padgett, Fern, Nick Olsen, Vargas and Stallknecht earned the final five playoff spots by virtue of their points.

Just like the regular season, the playoff schedule presents a wide variety of track and car combinations. The Round of 12 starts next week with the MNR drivers piloting Super Late Models around the 0.75-mile Richmond Raceway. The series then moves to ARCA cars at Daytona International Speedway, followed by Porsche 911s at Watkins Glen International to conclude the first round.

The Round of 8 consists of two races: the Next Gen cars at Pocono Raceway and the NASCAR Trucks at Chicagoland Speedway. The season six champion will be crowned on Monday, Feb. 13, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the Xfinity cars.

In a season where anyone can win and anything can happen, it will be tough to predict what happens in the playoffs. After Talladega, Vargas offered up his strategy going forward.

“If you top-10 them to death, then you might luck out and get a win,” Vargas said. “I’m kind of hoping for the same luck next week.”

About the author

Profile Pic

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 works as an athletic communications specialist at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via