MOTEGI, TOCHIGI PREFECTURE, JAPAN – If John Peters wanted to mount a comeback bid for a second NEP championship ring, it would fittingly have to start at Twin Ring Motegi.
Peters dominated the second half of Thursday night’s Zanie Does Japan 55 to earn his fifth victory of the SHIFT Marketing/Design Grand National Series season in the iRacing league’s first sanctioned event outside of North America.
“Never have been to this track before, I don’t know that any of us have,” said Peters after climbing from his Runtal Radiators Chevrolet. “So to come out of here with a win, that’s a big one.”
Peters qualified third and spent the opening laps of the race chasing polesitter Ryan Libby. Libby, echoing his strong performances in pre-race practice, looked to be a sure shot to win his sixth NEP feature of the season and pad his points lead over the reigning champion.
Dylan Kopec’s crash on lap 23 bunched up the field and presented the first real opportunity of the night to play tire strategy, and most of the field took the opportunity to pit for tires, leaving title long-shot Kenny Kibbey at the point. Kibbey, in need of a big win to keep his championship hopes alive, was not the only one to gamble on tires, with Mike Hopkins, David Arute, Charles Lewandoski and Michael Bennett also staying on the track.
Peters restarted seventh, picking his way through the cars on older tires to battle Libby for second. Peters and Libby, racing side-by-side, ran down Kibbey on the backstretch. Kibbey stayed high, leaving the inside open for Peters and forcing Libby to back out and fall in line. Peters and Libby cleared Kibbey as the race’s third caution flag flew for a spin involving Kyle Casagrande and Ryan Posocco, with Posocco’s sliding car cleaning out Lewandoski’s ride at the entry of pit lane.
Contact deep in the field coming to the green forced officials to hold the restart a lap, but Libby dug in at the drop of the flag, battling Peters door-to-door as the Westbrook, Me. driver held the advantage on the inside. A lapped car on the inside allowed Evan Beaulieu to close in on the battle for the lead, with Beaulieu taking second from Libby a lap later.
But Beaulieu had nothing to run down Peters, who held on to win by just under a second over Beaulieu and points leader Libby.
“I really just wanted to stay on the same strategy as Ryan,” Peters said. “I figured if I could go head-to-head with him on the same strategy, that would probably be my best shot.”
Beaulieu has come on strong in the second half of the season, but had doubts about another strong run at Motegi. “We were really, really bad in practice,” he said. “I couldn’t get a good handle on this track. I’m not sure how we managed that, but we played the pit strategy right and got some good restarts.”
That put the Durham, Me. racer in contention as the laps ticked down. “Libby checked up just a bit while he was racing John, and I was able to pounce on him,” he said of the battle at the finish. “I knew at that point I wasn’t going to really have much for John, and just had to defend from there.”
Libby, meanwhile, was left to wonder what could have been. “One of the last restarts there with Kenny Kibbey, I think I could have did it a little differently,” he said of the move that put Peters in the lead. “But I just waited a little too long, and Peters was able to get up to the inside of me. And on one of the other restarts, I tried fighting him really hard on the outside, so he could use up his tires, but I guess I used mine up instead.”
Zane Ferrell, in a race he had personally championed prior to the season, crossed the line fourth, with fellow Pennsylvanian Brandon Yuhouse fifth. A stellar battle just outside the top five ended with Wyatt Alexander sixth and Canadian Brent Roy seventh after his strong outing at Lucas Oil Raceway. Devan Marhefka, who started at the back despite qualifying fourth, drove through the field to finish eighth. Cory Casagrande and Matt Shinoski rounded out the top ten.
Kibbey, forced to nurse his old tires to the finish, came home 12th, another run just short of expectations. Kibbey, who has yet to win in his first season of NEP competition, has taken chances the last couple weeks to uproot the Libby-Peters juggernaut ahead of him in the points.
Kibbey remains third in the standings, with Peters only shaving a few markers off Libby’s advantage. Eighteen points separate the two leaders atop the rankings with five races remaining to crown the second NEP Grand National Series champion.
Motegi was also the final race of the RDA Trilogy Challenge, with Jason Ricker and Mike Hopkins each gaining seven positions from their place on the grid. Ricker and Hopkins split the prize purse, joining two-time Trilogy Challenge winner Charles Lewandoski in claiming the special mid-season bounty.
The NEP SHIFT Marketing/Design Grand National Series teams will get a week to regroup before the next race at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Speedway on Monday, February 1. Live streaming coverage starts at 8:15pm on Vidane TV.