DOVER, DEL. – Halfway through Thursday evening’s SHIFT Championship 100 at Dover International Speedway, it appeared that Ryan Libby’s pit strategy had taken him out of the running for a strong finish to close out his first NEP SHIFT Marketing/Design Grand National Series season.
But in the second half of the race, Libby got exactly what he wanted.
A long green-flag stretch to close the race put the Connecticut racer in the catbird’s seat, with Libby cruising to his sixth NEP Grand National Series win of the season and his first win since Lucas Oil Raceway in January.
And nearly nineteen seconds back, John Peters nursed his car home to celebrate his second championship in the iRacing league’s second season.
“I still had another fresh set of tires left over, in case we had another ten-lap dash to the end,” Libby said as he celebrated a dominant closing performance. “But we didn’t end up having that caution, and it just worked to our favor.”
Libby started fourth and took a patient approach in the opening laps, backing out of the top five but working his way to third by the race’s first caution at lap 28. Peters led the field to pit road for tires and fuel, but Libby leapfrogged the field on pit lane by playing the strategy card early, taking only fuel to move ahead of Peters and Evan Beaulieu.
Peters easily overpowered Libby on the restart, taking the lead in turn one while his title rival dropped like a rock through the lineup. As Libby fell back, Peters’ pursuit for a sixth-straight win pressed on, with Kenny Kibbey taking the lead briefly at halfway.
Libby was within seconds of losing a lap when Charles Lewandoski and Zane Ferrell made contact on the frontstretch, bringing out a timely caution with 38 laps remaining. Libby and Lewandoski were among the handful of drivers who came to pit road, while Peters, Kibbey and the other leaders opted to wait for a later caution to take their final set of tires.
Peters brought the field back to green with 33 laps remaining, but his time at the point was short-lived as Lewandoski charged from 14th to take the lead in only four laps. Libby followed a few paces behind, quickly climbing from 18th to third but waiting a few laps to battle Lewandoski for the lead. The remainder of the field, still awaiting a caution flag, shifted to conservation mode, giving Libby and Lewandoski a seven-second advantage with twenty laps remaining.
Lewandoski’s early aggression forced him, too, to back off late in the run, leaving Libby alone several seconds in front of the field. And as the race stayed green, those who gambled on a late yellow were forced to tiptoe on fumes and worn tires, or drop down pit road when one or the other went away.
A close call with lapped traffic six laps from the finish spelled danger for Libby and gave the former frontrunners hope, but Libby escaped unscathed and the track remained clear for the final laps.
“I kind of figured everyone was gonna pit on that first caution, and I figured I’d roll the dice a little bit and take fuel only,” Libby said of his early pit gamble. “I already knew, by taking fuel only, I was going to literally take the boat anchor out and just go straight to the back. That was kind of the plan, just to ride as much as I can.”
The bold strategy call quite nearly blew up in Libby’s face. “Another lap or two, I was gonna blow a right front tire,” he said. “I literally had no right front tire left. So luck was definitely on our side tonight, the caution did come out. My goal was to have the freshest tires at the end of the race.”
Libby emerged from a deep rookie class to become a consistent contender, taking the checkered flag at Stafford in only his third start and racking up another four wins to take the points lead over reigning champion Peters with six races remaining.
But then Libby’s season came unglued. A post-race penalty at Myrtle Beach was followed with a crash at Talladega. Two weeks later, a work commitment kept Libby from taking the green flag at Auto Club Speedway, sealing his fate and securing the championship for Peters. Libby scored two NEP SuperTruck Series wins along the way, with he and Team BBY partner Brent Roy teaming to win half of the miniseries’ six events. Even those wins, however, could not erase the sting of his Grand National Series near-miss.
“I’d just like to congratulate John Peters on a well-deserved championship,” said Libby in victory lane. “It was extremely fun running with him. At the beginning of the season, I thought we had something for him, but that race at Myrtle Beach just kind of set the trend for me. A bad run, and I never could get out of that hole I was in.”
“[Libby] fooled us all on strategy,” Peters said of his call to stay out under what turned out to be the evening’s final caution. “I felt like it was too early for me to take my last set, we were kind of all on the same page with forty laps to go. We didn’t want to get stuck at the end of the race with no tires. So we stayed out, and we probably needed a caution there, badly, at any point.”
Indeed, Peters’ call to stay out nearly bit him in the closing laps. “I was actually blowing my right front tire on the last two laps, and I ran out of gas on my burnout,” he confessed. “So we cut it close, but it’s nice to finish it off here, bring it home with a good run.”
Good runs, of course, were par for the course for the Westbrook, Maine native, who won nine times in eighteen starts and had a worst finish of eleventh en route to his second NEP Grand National Series championship. Wheeling a replica of the late Mike Stefanik’s famed #51 H&H Motorsports entry, adorned with his own sponsorship from longtime backer Runtal North America, Peters’ dominance was reminscent of the Rhode Island hall-of-famer who won back-to-back NASCAR Busch North Series championships in 1997 and 1998.
Peters was sure to acknowledge the support of his parents, a week after winning at Irwindale Speedway in a car paying tribute to his father Greg, who is battling cancer. “Thanks to my parents for watching,” he said. “I really did this for my dad this season. So glad we could do it for him.”
Zane Ferrell, who escaped unscathed from the lap-62 incident with Lewandoski, wheeled his garish pink #14 to a third-place finish, his best run since back-to-back runner-up finishes at Myrtle Beach and Talladega. “We got up to second, but I was being an idiot the entire first half of the race,” Ferrell said of his early-race aggression. “Got into a little contact there with Charles, but it was all good, had no damage. I figured if everybody pits, I was gonna pit, if nobody pitted, I was going to stay out, so we stayed out and just kind of rode around.”
Some mid-race advice from Cory Casagrande helped Ferrell to retool his approach for the long run. “I noticed guys started backing up and backing up, and I just kind of kept the same pace I had from lap forty, or whenever we went back to the green flag there. Just kind of rode it out, but the last five laps, I was a little scared, because I thought we were going to run out of fuel.”
NEP SuperTruck Series regular Austin Boelke, a mid-season arrival in the Grand National Series ranks, finished fourth, with Lewandoski the last driver on the lead lap in fifth.
Anthony Aiello was a lap down in sixth, with Devan Marhefka seventh and Scott MacDonald a season-best eighth. Kibbey was two laps in arrears in ninth after a late pit stop, while Evan Beaulieu rounded out the top ten after his own stop.
Kibbey’s pit stop, prompted by contact with the wall, kept the Michigander from overtaking Beaulieu for third in the standings. Beaulieu, the only full-time competitor other than Peters or Libby to record a win, closed out a solid second season with an additional win in NEP SuperTruck Series competition. Kibbey, who stepped down as race director to take the wheel this season, made all but one start en route to fourth in points, with Cory Casagrande rounding out the top five in series points.
Libby’s runner-up points finish also secured Rookie of the Year honors for the former Stafford Motor Speedway regular, with he and Kibbey outpacing the other series first-timers all season.
Thursday’s race was also the final planned NEP Grand National Series event for the venerable ARCA platform. The third season for the Grand National Series, scheduled to kick off in October, will see a shift to the NASCAR Xfinity Series platform. New rules aimed at inspiring pit strategy decisions will add a new dimension to the league for its next season.
The next event under the NEP banner will be the debut of the new NEP Endurance Series on Monday, March 22nd, with 90 minutes at the Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway road course.