Race Weekend Central

MNR Review: Sage Karam Sails Away at Watkins Glen As Playoff Chaos Swirls Around Him

This MNR Review is presented by Monday Night Racing.

On Monday, Jan. 23, The Interstate Batteries Monday Night Racing Pro Series staged the final race of the Round of 12 in the season six playoffs with the Roasted Gems Coffee Challenge in the Porsche 911 RSRs at the boot layout of Watkins Glen International. Sage Karam won his second MNR road course race in a row, sailing to victory by a comfortable margin over runner-up Chase Cabre. D.J. Cummings continued his late-season hot streak with a third-place finish, James Bickford brought his car home fourth, and playoff driver Corey Heim completed the top five.

Check out the race recap from Frontstretch’s Ryan Kish here. You can also 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 the top five takeaways following Watkins Glen and the Round of 12:

See also
Sage Karam Dominates, Round of 8 Locked In for MNR Playoffs

1) Karam Is Crowned MNR’s Road Course King

New to the MNR scene this season, Karam has utilized his open-wheel and road course background to instant success in MNR’s road course races. Of the three road course events this season, Karam has won both that he has entered, with his previous win coming in the Next Gen Cars at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

Starting from the pole, Karam would receive a brief challenge early from Heim, the only other road course winner this season in the Mazda MX-5s at the Daytona Road Course. However, once Karam got around, he would open up a gap of several seconds despite sustaining minor damage early on. Karam chose to repair that damage under green flag pit stops, falling back to 10th in the running order coming off of pit road.

“I had some damage from a lapped car,” Karam explained to Eric Estep afterwards. “I took some optional repair on that first stop, and that’s why I kind of got shuffled back.”

The unplanned caution for an incident blocking the track with 28 minutes left would prove to be to Karam’s benefit, as he came down pit road to top off on fuel and regain track position, lining up fourth for the final restart. When the green flag finally came back out with 16 minutes left, Karam made quick work of David Schildhouse, Cummings, and Mark Rebilas, all of whom stayed out under the last caution, Karam cruised to a nearly nine-second win over Cabre.

With the victory, Karam has established himself as a force to be reckoned with on road courses, but he wants to be competitive at all the tracks on the MNR schedule.

“It’s definitely what I’m more comfortable with, what I grew up doing,” Karam said on his road course success. “But I definitely want to try to get those oval results a bit better. Hopefully, I can get that sorted.”

With multiple wins this season, could Karam consider running a full-time MNR schedule in season 7? His road course racing abilities would make him an instant championship contender.

2) Unfamiliarity Breeds Calamity

While the drivers of MNR are no strangers to Watkins Glen, the track/car combination of the boot layout with the Porsche 911 RSRs was a completely new experience for the 38-driver field, and it led to some wild wrecks and incidents that changed the complexion of the race and the playoffs.

Not even one minute in, contact in the esses portion of the 3.45-mile Watkins Glen boot layout caused damage to several cars, most notably playoff driver Ryan Vargas, severely bending the rear wing on his No. 26 car. A couple of minutes after that, Will Rodgers and Connor Barry made contact coming out of the bus stop, forcing both of them to pit for repairs.

The race would settle down for a bit after that, with the occasional single-car spin. Then, just prior to the scheduled halfway competition caution, Matt Stallknecht spun his No. 41 car in the boot portion of the course, causing minor damage. For Stallknecht, it would be far from the end of his misfortune, as he would get caught up in two more incidents before dropping out with about 13 minutes left.

Going into the event, Josh Mendoza and MNR race control did not plan on throwing any yellow flags beside the mid-race competition caution, except for an incident that blocked the track completely. That is exactly what happened with 28 minutes left in the race, as the field went back under the caution flag for a crash involving six to eight drivers that blocked the track coming out of the boot and leading into NASCAR turn 6. That caution lasted twelve minutes of the 80-minute race time, and it set up a round of pit strategy and bunched back the field to change the course of the race and the playoffs.

A hallmark of MNR competition is the unique selection of track and car combinations that produce an entertaining racing product and tests a sim racer’s full skillset. Though sloppy at times, the Roasted Gems Coffee Challenge achieved both of those goals.

3) Big Names Bounced From Playoffs

Watkins Glen marked the end of the opening round of the season six playoffs, and with that four contenders were eliminated.

Collin Fern was knocked out of contention before the drop of the green flag as he was unable to compete Monday night due to being on vacation. Though judging by his Twitter posts, Fern did not seem too upset about leaving the championship conversation.

Schildhouse found himself in a must-win situation following accidents and miscues at Richmond and Daytona. Schildhouse, who went into Watkins Glen 30 points behind eighth place, got creative with pit strategy, opting for fuel only under the first round of green flag pit stops while most others took tires. This worked out at first, elevating Schildhouse to the lead before the competition caution, during which he pitted twice to top off on fuel.

Then, under the second caution, Schildhouse stayed out while others pitted, putting him on point for the ensuing restart. However, his hopes for a walk-off win into the Round of 8 would be dashed soon after that.

“My race was over about fifteen minutes in when I grazed the wall coming out of the final corner,” a dejected Schildhouse said post-race. “My hope is that if things out of my control went my way, then maybe I would steal one. My playoff run was over after Richmond. Let’s be honest here.”

Like Schildhouse, Nick Olsen was way behind the cutline and in need of a miracle that wound up not materializing. Though he had a fast No. 24 car, Olsen’s involvement in a late-race crash would ultimately be his downfall, relegating him to a 23rd-place finish.

“I think we had the second-best car tonight to Sage [Karam],” Olsen said on the Frontstretch post-race show. “We put ourselves in a great spot to capitalize. It goes back to Daytona the week before.”

Perhaps the most heartbreaking playoff elimination was reserved for Garrett Smithley. After Vargas and Stallknecht had their setbacks, Smithley appeared to be well on his way to a spot in the Round of 8. That all changed with only about five minutes remaining in the race when Smithley spun out at the carousel and hit the wall, suffering significant damage. Smithley would then get hit by multiple drivers and have to make mandatory repairs to his race car. Smithley plummeted to 28th in the final running order.

Nick Olsen MNR Watkins Glen
Nick Olsen (Photo: Ryan Kish)

4) Olsen Expresses His Frustration

In his Frontstretch post-race show interview, Olsen lamented his playoff exit and pointed out issues he had with multiple drivers in the Round of 12 going back to last week at Daytona.

“[At Daytona], we were riding in the back all race to avoid trouble,” Olsen explained. “Then, certain people who were up front racing hard just didn’t show any patience or regard for the car in front of him, hit him in the right rear, and spun him sideways right in the path of my right front tire. You can’t really hide from stupid.  Thoughts and prayers for the Truck Series field this year.”

Though Olsen did not mention anyone specifically by name, he appeared to be referring to Rajah Caruth, who got into the back of Reid Wilson, who in turn got into the right front of Olsen, a crash that was the beginning of the end of Olsen’s championship bid.

Olsen also cited differences with Anthony Alfredo, as the two got entangled in the same incident at Watkins Glen. However, Olsen made it clear that this was not the start of any long-term beef.

“I have no issues with Anthony Alfredo,” Olsen said. “We talked after the race. He understands the situation I was in.”

Will Olsen be a man on a mission as the playoffs move on to the Round of 8 without him?

“There’s going be a lot of intensity,” OIsen said about the Round of 8. “[The eight playoff drivers] have a lot more to lose than I do, but at no point would I consider making contact with a playoff driver.”

5) Next Up: Previewing The Round of 8

The Round of 8 will see a return to NASCAR track/car combinations, including a never-before-seen track in MNR history. Next week, MNR will make its first-ever trip to Pocono Raceway, piloting the Next Gen cars around the Tricky Triangle. The second — and final race — of the Round of 8 will take place at Chicagoland Speedway in the Trucks. One fewer race than the Round of 12 will likely mean more urgency from the playoff drivers to make big moves to book their ticket into the Championship 4.

With the points reset, Presley Sorah now leads with 810 points, followed by Adam Cabot at 808, Cabre at 806, Heim, Leighton Sibille, and Joey Padgett at 803, and Vargas and Stallknecht bring up the rear at 800.

“I fully expect these eight guys will be running in the top 10 for the duration of both these races,” Stallknecht predicted post-race.

Speaking of predictions, I believe that Sorah, Cabot, Cabre, and Heim will be the four to vie for the championship in the Xfinity cars at Homestead. Sorah and Cabre are multi-race winners this season, and Cabot and Heim have shown strong consistency from the start of season six. The track/car combinations also line up well for Heim and his real-world NASCAR background. Furthermore, Sorah and Cabot have been here before as previous MNR champions, and that experience will come in handy down the stretch.

About the author

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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.

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