FONTANA, CALIF. – John Peters’ path to a second NEP SHIFT Marketing/Design Grand National Series crown became a lot clearer in California.
Peters played pit strategy to perfection to claim his eighth win of the season in Thursday’s Auto Club 60 at Auto Club Speedway.
And with his chief title rival unable to make the trip west, Peters holds a nearly-insurmountable lead in the standings with only two races remaining.
“Good to be in victory lane, of course,” Peters said of his fourth straight NEP Grand National Series victory and the eleventh of his career. “Happy to get another win, kind of helps going down the stretch here.”
The racer from Westbrook, Maine started from the pole but handed the early lead to outside polesitter Kenny Kibbey. Kibbey, still in search of his first NEP win, stayed out front for several laps while Peters faced a challenge from fellow Mainer Evan Beaulieu. Peters marched back into the lead on lap 17, battling Kibbey as the top three pulled away to a five-second advantage over the battle for fourth.
As the race approached halfway, Peters distanced himself from the second-place battle as well, but a lack of yellow flags forced the leaders to gamble on green-flag pit stops. Beaulieu, facing a nearly three-second deficit to Peters, pitted with twenty laps remaining, with Kibbey following suit a lap later. Peters brought his Runtal Radiators-sponsored entry to the pits on lap 41, but returned to the track sandwiched between Beaulieu and Kibbey in a tight battle for the eventual lead.
Matt Shinoski assumed the point, with he and Brent Roy holding out hope for a caution before peeling off for pit road themselves. Roy handed the top spot to Wyatt Alexander, who took charge with a nine-second advantage over Peters with fourteen laps remaining. Alexander was gambling on a late yellow to freeze the field, allowing him to pit for fresh tires for a late charge through the field.
Peters erased Alexander’s advantage in a mere three laps, taking the lead back with eleven laps to go. Alexander’s fuel cell ran dry less than a lap later, forcing the Ellsworth, Maine driver to the pits and ending his outside shot at a solid finish. A further tire issue after returning to the track dropped Alexander two laps back and out of contention.
Peters, on the other hand, coasted to a 1.176-second win over Kibbey in a caution-free run to the checkers.
“I kind of expected that this might be a pretty calm and tame race,” he said. “It was mostly about tire management, pacing yourself, making sure that you still had a right front tire there. And then pit strategy kind of played in toward the second half.”
Kibbey, who led 13 laps, was left to wonder if he could have played strategy a little differently. “I wanted to do the undercut and pit early, but I was actually thinking originally of pitting around halfway,” he said. “Then I was thinking, oh, we’re going to get a caution or something, that’s going to be too aggressive.”
Instead, Kibbey was beaten at his own game. “I noticed Evan pitted, and he undercut both of us,” he said, “so I was like, well, shoot, I’m gonna have to pit now.”
Beaulieu slipped to third at the finish, despite gaining on both Peters and Kibbey in the pits. “In most of these races, you gotta try and do something different if you don’t have the speed,” he explained. “So I pitted early, and a couple laps after, I just smacked the wall out of four, and it just killed the car.”
Devan Marhefka was fourth at the finish, with Jason Ricker picking up a fifth-place run after running in the top ten all night. Dale Glessner rebounded from a pit road miscue to place sixth. Brent Roy was seventh after starting 21st and working his way from the tail of the field. Cory Casagrande and Zane Ferrell were eighth and ninth, with Brandan Marhefka rounding out the top ten.
Matt Shinoski bounced off the wall during the pit sequence and slipped to 15th, while Wyatt Alexander was scored 22nd after his Hail Mary strategy unraveled in the closing laps.
Missing not only from the top ten but from the field altogether, though, was Ryan Libby. The NEP rookie with five wins had proven to be Peters’ toughest competition for the championship. However, a work commitment forced Libby to skip the race, leaving him fifty points out of the lead and likely out of title contention.
The championship implications were not lost on Peters, who was hopeful that NEP officials could be persuaded to revisit the points system. “I was a little bit disappointed not to see him,” Peters said. “It’s always great to race with Ryan, of course, and I want to be able to race this thing out with him. Maybe we’ll see what we can do there.”
Libby’s misfortune tightens up the race for second considerably, with Kibbey only eight points back and Beaulieu sixteen points out in fourth. Cory Casagrande remains a distant fifth.
The NEP SHIFT Marketing/Design Grand National Series has a week off before the penultimate race of the season, the Marhefka Motorsports 75 at Irwindale Speedway. Vidane TV will again have live coverage of the event on Thursday, March 4 at 8:15pm EST.