The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series crunch has begun. There’s one spot left in the playoffs with one race left. Drivers have been more aggressive than ever in pursuit of the golden ticket, a win that could get them a shot at a championship. While some knock on the door of the playoffs, others have had their expectations and goals humbled with their eyes now aimed toward survival rather than titles.

This year has been a tale of rookies against veterans. Former champions Michael Conti and Nick Ottinger, the latter being locked in on points after going winless thus far, currently lead Jordy Lopez and Tucker Minter, a pair of rookies from Team Dillon eSports. Reigning champion Casey Kirwan completes the rookie sandwich in fifth and locked in with his two wins.

One of the more interesting stories involves Malik Ray. The Jim Beaver eSports driver is well beyond rookie status but has not reached the upper echelon of eNASCAR with his best finish in the standings being eighteenth four years ago. Back-to-back-to-back years of relegation concluded with him barely eking his way into the 2023 season last winter.

This year, however, he’s driving like a different person. Ray is firmly in the playoff picture with five top 10 finishes and an additional two top 10s combined with an average finish of 15th, which is tied for fifth-best in the series. He’ll need things to fall his way at Pocono tomorrow night. It’s a track that he enjoys, though, as it emphasizes the need for drivers to hit their lines at each corner of the unique triangle.

One way for Ray to make the playoffs is for him to find his first career win – easier said than done in such a competitive field, but he’s closer than ever in his five-year eNASCAR career. If he can’t find victory lane, he’ll need help. Graham Bowlin, also winless, is 24 points ahead of Ray while Parker White, Michael Cosey Jr., and Matt Bussa are within five points of Ray.

All of them will be hoping for no new winners unless it’s them in victory lane. A new winner, provided they are in the top 20 in points, would take the last unclaimed spot. Bowlin, with his 24-point lead on Ray and others is the best-positioned should there be a repeat winner. In that case, Bowlin would need a decent enough finish, likely no worse than 20 spots behind the top finisher in the contingency of Ray, White, Cosey Jr, and Bussa who lurk on the edge of the top 10.

The one spot that is open in the playoffs could become two, however. Jimmy Mullis is provisionally in the playoff with his race win but he’s 19th

in the point standings, a poor finish from him at Pocono could see him drop below 20th and lose his ticket to the playoffs, opening up a world of possibilities for drivers on the bubble.

While others fret with calculators in hand, Conti, Ottinger, Lopez, Minter, Kirwan, Bobby Zalenski, Steven Wilson, and Garrett Lowe are locked into the playoffs.

Drivers on the bubble of the top 20 are making similar calculations, but with far different goals. One of those is Williams eSports’ Donovan Strauss, who is on a streak of top 20 finishes.

“The biggest thing is coming together as a team and were clicking as a whole and when everyone is clicking, you’re going to click,” Strauss said.

The Georgia native confessed to wrecking himself out of a top 10 finish at Gateway and vowed to change the course of his season after the incident.

“After the Gateway race where I wrecked myself in eighth or ninth, I decided I was going to make this happen,” he said. “I’m going to get back into the top 20. I’m going to avoid relegation one way or another. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to do it. The climb has started.”

He’s not the only one making that climb, however. Tyler Garey currently sits in the coveted 20th place in the standings, just one point clear of Wyatt Tinsley and five points ahead of Dylan Ault. Veteran drivers are also facing the likelihood of relegation including 2019 series champion Zack Novak.

“Me and Kaden had a battle out there, to say the least, my answer to that is just that I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” Novak said after last week’s race.

“It’s getting down to the end of the season, I’m in a battle for the top 20 in points, I was significantly faster in that instance. You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do for track position, I think that’s been made clear throughout this entire season and the last couple of seasons as well.”

Tomorrow night at the virtual Pocono will determine the playoff grid but the four races that follow will decide who takes home the title, and which 20 drivers will have a busy winter earning their spot back in the series.