MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – With only five races remaining to determine the second NEP SHIFT Marketing/Design Grand National Series champion, John Peters needed a big night at the Beach if he wanted to remain the only champion.
And in Thursday night’s O’Quinn Trailer Sales 75 at Myrtle Beach Speedway, Peters got exactly what he wanted.
A dominant performance en route to victory, coupled with a late-race miscue for points leader Ryan Libby, put the defending champion at the top of the points standings leaving the historic South Carolina oval, setting up a shootout between the series’ top guns with only four races to go in the iRacing league’s second season.
“It was tough, it was stressful,” Peters said from victory lane. “I’m glad we could hang on and get this win.”
Thursday’s race was oddly snow-delayed, with a winter storm Monday night impacting the plans of many of the series regulars. A full field of 23 entries still turned out for the delayed event, with Peters taking fast time in qualifying to lead the field to green.
The Westbrook, Me. native quickly asserted himself at the front of the field, showing the way for the mostly-green first half of the race with fellow Mainer Evan Beaulieu in tow. Libby, playing race offense and points-lead defense, picked up some speed through the run, slipping past Beaulieu for second approaching halfway.
A caution flag at lap 40 forced the field to consider tire options. Peters and Libby stayed out, while Beaulieu and Kenny Kibbey came down pit road for fresh rubber. When Beaulieu carved his way back into the top ten after only a few laps, Libby gambled on tires under the next caution, restarting deep in the field with 22 laps to go.
Libby’s gamble nearly turned catastrophic a few laps later, when hard racing set off a massive pileup exiting turn four that sent Charles Lewandoski rolling onto his roof and left Libby and Kibbey with major damage. With two of his closest contenders mired in the back, Peters continued to show the way, with Zane Ferrell and a surprising Mike Hopkins giving chase.
A spin for Wyatt Alexander while running fourth was not enough to draw a yellow with the laps winding down, but when rookie Austin Boelke and Kibbey were turned around in turn one, the field slowed again with only seven laps on the scoreboard.
Peters chose the outside line for the ensuing restart, but Ferrell got the jump, propelling the Pennsylvanian into a lead that evaporated with another yellow. As the cars gridded for an overtime restart, Peters was given lane choice for the restart, while Ferrell received a warning for his exuberance.
Peters had no hesitation at the drop of the green, leading a total of 73 laps on the evening en route to his sixth NEP Grand National Series win of the season and the ninth of his career.
“The strategy could have gone one of two ways,” Peters said of the call to stay on the track. “Either that works or that doesn’t. I’ve learned my lesson a few times this year, leading the race, and taking the chance to come down and get tires. You can see what happens in the back, when there’s urgency to pass cars quick and get to the front. Wrecks happen, and that’s what a couple guys got caught up in back there.”
Ferrell, who stayed on the track with Peters through the race, held off a hard-charging Evan Beaulieu for second place, matching his NEP career best and at last reflecting his race-long performance with a finish to match.
Ferrell was unrepentant for taking a chance to dethrone Peters. “I tried to get the one-up on him,” he said. “I noticed on his restarts, every one of them he was going right as he got to the line. … Coming to that penultimate restart there, I figured I’m gonna take the chance. If he goes, he goes, and if not, I’ll get black-flagged, and we threw it away.”
Beaulieu, the best-finishing driver among those who pitted for tires, was frustrated with the outcome. “I knew I had to do something different than John and Ryan, and taking tires was it,” he explained. “Just unfortunate, we were in the wrong spots a couple times coming up through the field … That’s just the chance you take.”
After battling Ferrell for the runner-up slot, Mike Hopkins settled for an NEP career-best fourth-place finish.
Ryan Libby appeared to have dodged heartbreak, clawing his way from midpack to cross the line fifth, but officials reviewed the result immediately after Libby’s contact with Dylan Kopec stacked up the field on the final lap. Libby was penalized to the last car on the lead lap, and with 22 of 23 cars still running at the finish, the penalty was disastrous.
Brandan Marhefka instead inherited a fifth-place result after Libby’s penalty, with Matt Shinoski credited with sixth. Brandon Yuhouse was seventh and Tim Shinoski eighth after running in the top five late. Charles Lewandoski rebounded from his barrel roll to finish ninth, and Matt Kentfield drove to his first career NEP Grand National Series top-ten finish.
Libby’s penalty erased his significant lead in the point standings, with Peters slipping five markers ahead in the season-long battle. Behind the two standouts, Evan Beaulieu’s string of strong performances advanced him to third in the standings ahead of a slumping Kenny Kibbey.
The NEP SHIFT Marketing/Design Grand National Series will continue the race to the championship Monday night with the Yuhouse Racing Designs 50 at Talladega Superspeedway. Vidane TV will have live coverage starting at 8:00pm EST, with qualifying immediately followed by the green flag.