There’s something almost cruel about the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series playoff schedule. The track too tough to tame in Darlington, the last great coliseum in Bristol, and the 3,000-acre, 175,000-person capacity monstrosity that is Talladega. A technical intermediate, a brutal short track, and a venue whose Wikipedia page features sections titled “The Big One” and “The Talladega Curse” to whittle down the final four.
Two tickets to the final four have already been redeemed by Bobby Zalesnki and Keegan Leahy, who won at Darlington and Bristol. For the other eight drivers, their road to a title must go through Alabama.
“I feel like if we do get wrecked, then it’s all over,” William Byron eSports’ Logan Clampitt said.
“Making sure we can put ourselves in position to win the race because that’s really our only path in; winning,” said JR Motorsports driver Michael Conti after being involved in a crash at Bristol.
Even the drivers who have locked themselves are feeling the pressure as they now look to find a way to bring their teammates with them.
“It’s all about Mitchell [DeJong] at Talladega,” Leahy said of his 23XI teammate. “I couldn’t care less where I finish. It’s all about Mitchell. He’s leading the points, too, so it’s not really all or nothing. We just need to get a decent finish and he’ll be in.”
Drivers will find a different kind of restrictor plate racing than the type they encountered at Daytona earlier in the season. Since that race in February, iRacing has updated the aerodynamic models of the cars to include side-drafting. The three-by-three racing we saw at Daytona may not be replicated at Talladega, according to Clampitt, and that will likely change the strategy.
“We had a draft model where we were running three-by-three, the whole entire race, especially at a track like Daytona and we went green the whole race until the end on the final lap,” Clampitt said. “So, I guess just try and ride around. I mean if we qualify upfront we’re going to try and stay there. But we just have to try and position ourselves at the end to be around top five or something like that.”
The small eight-point lead that Clampitt has above the cut-line might be comforting to some, but for it does little to reassure Clampitt of a playoff spot.
“Well, I just, you know, it doesn’t do a lot, at least there’s a small cushion,” he said with a hint of hesitancy in his voice.
“At least we don’t have to win the race. But you know, anyone can win, even a non-playoff driver. It’s going to be crazy. Mitchell [DeJong], he’s probably up by just a few points and then someone can jump me in points, and then I could be out, anything can happen, I’m not really sure what my strategy is going to be, but it’s going to be stressful.
“I think if we can maybe score top 10, then I think there’s a good chance we can get in. So right now, that’s just my aim for now.”
For Conti, a top 10 might not even be good enough. He currently sits 37 points behind the cut-line and last among the eight playoff drivers still searching for a spot in the finale. After a crash at Bristol, he will likely need a win at Talladega to keep his championship hopes alive.
“Things happen so quickly at these plate races to where you can’t really calculate points and figure out how to take care of everybody that you want to because if you start getting worried about other people’s races, you’ll oftentimes jeopardize your own,” he said.
“With this being the final race before the last race at Texas, it’s just us looking after the No. 8 car, looking after our team, and just making sure we can put ourselves in position to win the race because that’s really our only path in is winning. And we found ourselves there last year, and we did it. So we’ve proven it can be done. We just have to do it one more time.”
Race strategy and draft partnerships will be interesting. If 23XI and their VRS Coanda Simsport technical alliance teammates can qualify out front, they may try and lock out the rest of the field. Deadzone Racing, with its dozen members across multiple teams, might consider creating their own pack of cars to wait for the right moment to pounce.
When a single race is seen as a must-win for half of the field, there’s surely going to be chaos. It’s not a stretch to say those are the reasons Talladega is where it is on the eNASCAR schedule, and who doesn’t like a bit of post-season madness?