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Michael Conti snapped a winless streak that dated back to August 2014 by winning the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series race at Michigan International Speedway on Tuesday night. The former series champion started fifth and was strong all evening, leading 57 of 125 laps. Conti outdueled polesitter Zack Novak, who spent 50 laps at the point before falling to Conti on pit strategy on the last run.
Novak crossed the line 2.7 seconds behind Conti. Novak pitted one lap early and briefly took the lead thanks to his fresh tires. However, Conti’s one-lap fresher tires made all the difference as the 2014 champ reeled him in, flew around Novak on the outside, and pulled way for victory.
Logan Clampitt finished third and clenched a spot in the NPAS playoffs. Taylor Hurst came home fourth and Dylan Duval was fifth.
Novak had the quickest car early, leading the first 24 laps from the pole as Conti settled into second. A caution for Brad Davies’ spin slowed the field for the only time in the race and brought the field to the pits for tires and fuel. Novak kept the lead with a solid stop, but he no longer had the luxury of a comfortable lead.
This time, Conti had the speed to keep up and stuck to Novak’s back bumper as the run wore on. Conti finally made his move on Lap 42, taking the lead off Turn 2. Novak would not go quietly and on Lap 45 Novak returned the favor in Turn 2, recapturing the top spot.
The two ran nose to tail once again until Conti capitalized on Novak’s mistake off Turn 4 on Lap 51 and took the lead for the second time. Conti would continue to lead until he pitted for tires and fuel on Lap 55 under green. Novak followed three laps later, but the differing strategies let Conti pull out to a lead of over half the front straightaway.
Fresher tires and a fast car allowed Novak to slowly chase Conti down and by Lap 88 he was once again on his bumper. Instead of passing for the lead Novak decided to undercut Conti and pit on Lap 89, one lap before the leader. The stop gave Novak the lead for a moment before Conti motored by on Lap 95.
Michigan also marked the end of the regular season, and the top eight drivers in the standings will now do battle in the first ever NPAS playoffs. Ryan Luza will lead the eight into the postseason with his three victories, followed by Bobby Zalenski and Ray Alfalla with two each. Novak is seeded fourth with one win. Corey Vincent, Marcus Richardson, Logan Clampitt, and Christian Challiner also qualified for the playoffs but have not won a race thus far in 2017.
The playoffs will kick off at Darlington Raceway and with Zalenski’s regular season points lead erased, it truly is an eight-driver fight for the title. Luza comes in as the odds-on favorite but Alfalla has the experience of a close championship battle under his belt. Zalenski and Novak should not be discounted either as both have shown race-winning speed in several races this season.
Who will get the playoffs started off on the right foot and who will have work to do when the NPAS leaves Darlington? Find out in two weeks when the series visits Darlington, the track Too Tough to Tame!
Details on the playoff format can be found here: http://www.iracing.com/nascar-peak-antifreeze-series/