On a weekend where a Le Mans winner, a DTM champion, and an F1 world champion will join the NASCAR Cup Series field at Watkins Glen, it’s fitting that the first NASCAR-sanctioned win of the weekend goes the way of a Porsche factory driver – albeit an eSports one.
Mitchell DeJong punched his ticket to the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series playoffs with a dominant win over Bobby Zalenski on Tuesday night. It was the first win of the season for DeJong, who returned to form on the road course after being beaten earlier in the season at Road America.
The difference between Road America and Watkins Glen came down to more preparation, DeJong explained.
“We really went back to the drawing board and essentially rolled through the setup and tried all the different ideas a good five times each,” DeJong said. “It was a lot of testing time for this because we had a lot of time, obviously had another oval race in between, but we really made sure to cross our t’s and dot our i’s for this one.
“We tried to leave no stone unturned, because that was such a difficult race from qualifying and putting yourself in that situation where incidents can happen to you. I didn’t really do myself a favor here in qualifying. But as it turned out, we had really good race pace and the practice really paid off. I think that was the big difference, all the preparation.”
Now that he has secured his spot in the playoffs on a road course, DeJong needs to improve his performance on ovals if he wants to have another shot at the championship. DeJong has just two top 10 finishes – one of which was a fifth-place finish at Dover – in 11 races on ovals this season.
“I think chances are good,” DeJong said of his prospects on the ovals in the playoffs. “Unfortunately, the results don’t really show it, but we’ve had a lot of really good oval races. The performance h as been well. For pretty much all of them, I feel like we’ve worked our way to the front after a bad qualifying.”
DeJong and Zalenski battled for the lead in the first 13 laps of the race. Both drivers were fighting for a spot in the playoffs as the two road course specialists were each searching for their first win of the season. DeJong passed Zalenski on lap 13 and quickly pulled away.
The results from Watkins Glen provided 23XI Racing’s DeJong relief while simultaneously closing the walls around Joe Gibbs Racing’s Zalenski as he looks for a way into the playoffs.
Zalenski went on to finish second, leaving him tentatively in the playoffs on points but just two points ahead of Zack Novak.
“This series is all about that one kind of lucky or fortunate race of the year that you get a win rather than your points,” Zalenski said.
If Zalenski fails to win at Darlington, the finishing position of Novak and Blake Reynolds, who is also winless, will likely determine who gets the final playoff spot. That’s assuming there is not another new winner and Ray Alfalla, who has a win, remains outside of the top 20 and ineligible for the playoffs.