While Roush Fenway Racing hasn’t earned a NASCAR Cup championship since Kurt Busch‘s 2004 title, it can once again call itself a championship organization after its driver, Zack Novak, in the No. 6 RFR Ford Mustang, captured the eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series championship in a live broadcast Thursday on NBCSN’s NASCAR America.
Novak earned $40,000 of the $100,000 prize pool, by winning the final race of the season at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway (and his fourth win overall of the now-completed iRacing season).
As for the other three championship contenders, Keegan Leahy (G2 Esports) finished second, Bobby Zalenski (Joe Gibbs Racing) finished fourth and Blake Reynolds (Team Dillon Esports) ended up with a ninth-place showing.
“(Being called champion) sounds awesome,” Novak told NBCSN. “That was a grind, all season long, and even the race itself was just a crazy grind and I can’t believe I’m in this position.
“(Leahy) kept me real honest, raced very clean. I respected him and I tried to race him as clean as I could back and I hope I accomplished that. We just really raced hard, had very comparable cars at the end and I can’t believe I came away with that.”
For Novak, it was his second major esports championship, having won the inaugural eNASCAR IGNITE Series (for drivers ages 13-16) title last year.
In addition to the big payday for earning the championship, as well as the weekly winnings during the season, Novak, a 17-year-old high school student from Connecticut, also earns a test day in a US Legends car and in a NASCAR Pinty’s Series vehicle with Canada’s Best Racing Team.
Novak also will take part in pre-race ceremonies for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ championship-deciding race Nov. 17 at Miami.
Leahy led most of the first half of the race, being scored the leader at Lap 70 of the 140-lap event. Unlike NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series, there were no stages in the iRacing championship-deciding race.
Leahy built as much as a 2.5-second lead before the first caution of the race came out on Lap 81 due to contact between two non-championship contenders. Leahy was passed by non-championship driver Jimmy Mullis on Lap 95, with Leahy dropping back to fifth, while Novak climbed into second and Zalenski also passed into fourth position. Leahy dropped to sixth place on Lap 101.
From that point, Novak kept pace with Mullis, but as long as he was ahead of his other three title contenders, he was in a good shape. As the race approached 20 laps to go, tire wear and conserving fuel became key for all drivers, but most notably for the title contenders.
A caution came out with 19 laps to go. Mullis missed his pit stall and had to reverse back into it, falling from the lead to 12th place, allowing Novak to take the lead on the restart with 16 laps remaining.
But four laps later, Leahy regained the lead, only to have Novak take it back with seven laps left and held on the rest of the way to take the checkered flag.
Novak was overcome with emotion after taking the win, but regained his composure to do a celebratory burnout.
“We still had enough to do it, yeah!” Novak exclaimed. “When I first got in the series three years ago as a 15-year-old, I never, ever thought this moment would happen. I did well in my rookie year and potentially had a shot at this, but I never knew it would be possible, honestly.
“This is what I’ve dreamt of my whole life, to win a championship in an official sanctioned series. I won the Ignite (championship) last year. Just how much time and effort it takes to win this, I’ve put in hours and hours into this, 30-plus hour weeks working on this car. It’s a full-time job. … I hope we’ll be back here next year.”
The Kid from Connecticut.
— iRacing.com (@iRacing) October 10, 2019
Just didn't quite have it at the end. I don't know what to feel. Epic drive by @znovak15 on that last run. I gave him nothing and he worked with it. Should I have doored him? For the 40k, maybe. For sim racing, no. This is how we do it in @iRacing. https://t.co/FC8Mh9TE9S
— Keegan Leahy (@KeeganLeahy) October 10, 2019