The early rounds of the 2022 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series have been marked by significantly diverging fortunes for a pair of the series’ most experienced drivers. One of them, Michael Conti (pictured above), has two wins in four races and is one point out of the championship lead. The other, Ray Alfalla, has an average finish of 24th and is outside the top 20 in points.
Alfalla might have been in Tuesday night’s race from Richmond at the green but after being involved in three wrecks, the veteran showed little interest in staying.
“We’ve been wrecked three times now,” Alfalla said on the iRacing broadcast. “One of those was my fault, I think the other two were… I don’t know, I’ve gotten stuck on the outside three-wide, and all three times I’ve ended up in the wall. Not a good race for the VRS Camry.”
When asked if he thought there might be a chance to pick up a few positions from other people’s incidents, Alfalla provided a sarcastic and frank response that was emblematic of his evening. “Yeah, I might wreck a few more guys here and see if we can get a few more spots,” he said.
Many people believed that drivers like Alfalla would thrive with the Next Gen and its driving style that offers a stark contrast to the high-downforce and low-horsepower package that the latter years of the previous chassis offered. From 2011 to 2018, Alfalla’s worst finish in the championship was fourth. In that same time, he added four titles and three runner-up finishes. Since then, however, he has been relegated out of the series once.
Conti, meanwhile, won the 2014 eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series and was second in 2012. After his championship in 2014, Conti entered a drought where he went winless for two seasons before returning to the top in 2017. After a winless 2019 season and a pair of single-win seasons in 2020 and 2021, Conti, like Alfalla, was eager to transition to the Next Gen car.
Four races into the 2022 season and it is clear that Conti has been the first of the veterans to find their grove.
“I came into this year feeling really, really good,” Conti said after the race. “There was so much preparation in the last year, it was not fun at times, it was painstaking, just running through setups and information and theories and seeing what worked and what didn’t. Ultimately, without that and without being pushed by a lot of people around me, we wouldn’t be here.
“This is crazy. I feel like typically I win on annual basis, sometimes semi-annual, and now we’re two out of four to start the year so this is awesome. It was a hell of a race. All of my hairs that had color in them are now gray and I think I lost a few years of my life at the end, those restarts were insane.
Conti’s early race success has been nearly matched by his setup alliance teammate, Nick Ottinger. Ottinger, who drives for William Byron eSports, entered Richmond with three straight pole positions and ended the night third in the championship with the best average finish among all drivers. Through four races, Ottinger has three top-10 finishes.
Conti and Ottinger’s early-season success is emblematic of the advantage that the Team Conti eSports setup alliance has on the rest of the field. Tonight’s race revealed the first crack in Team Conti’s armor as their qualifying performance did not match their usual showing.
Team Dillon eSports driver Corey Vincent, who finished the race in fourth, pointed to qualifying pace as the area that he and the rest of the field need to address to improve their chances against the Team Conti alliance.
“It’s qualifying. They’ve got everybody beat in qualifying, except for tonight,” Vincent said. His teammate, Taylor Hurst, earned pole position and was followed by Collin Bowden and Vincent. Ottinger, meanwhile, started on the outside of row seven.
“We knew in testing that we picked up and we knew we were going to be closer to them. We almost had (the pole), I slipped up a little bit out of (Turn 4. I feel like that’s the part where we needed to gain and I think we showed it tonight, we qualified good and we finished good,” Vincent added.
Ultimately, the short-run pace and strategy of Conti bested the efforts of Graham Bowlin and Vincent. Bowlin battled with Ottinger for second after several late-race restarts, which allowed Conti the breathing room to cruise to his 13th eNASCAR race win.
The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series goes to Bristol dirt in two weeks.