The final five laps went against every instinct Sage Karam has developed in his career in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Less throttle, slower laps, pressing the clutch and watching lapped cars drive away.
But it all paid off in the end. The Coanda Sim Sport driver managed an astonishing 28 laps on the final fuel stint and held off a hard-charging Adam Blocker to win the Minus 273 Grand Prix of Barber Thursday night.
It was Karam’s league-leading third win of 2019 in the Lionheart Retro Series presented by ButtKicker.
“I did 28 laps that last stint, I had to make up three or four laps,” Karam said. “I had to commit pretty early to push that fuel saving. Definitely a tough race, but we had to do what we had to do and thankfully I knew how to save fuel at the right times and got it done.”
Karam paced Blocker, the defending series champion making his season debut, over the opening stint of what many expected to be a two stop race. That seemed even more true when Karam hit pit road coming to lap 26 in the 53 lap event.
But it was soon evident Blocker would be able to make the race on one stop - especially after serving a drive-through penalty with no service allowed for avoidable contact, a penalty resulting from contact while lapping Cody Edlred in the final two corners on lap 20.
When Blocker exited his fuel stop on lap 27 still within 20 seconds of Karam, despite making contact with the wall on pit entry, Karam knew he had to find a way to make it to the end or give up the win to the champion.
Karam spent the final five laps pushing in the clutch in nearly every corner, gliding the car through the first section of the track and keeping an eye on Blocker as the Clemson student closed the gap to less than three seconds on the final lap.
“You can make a lot of mistakes when you’re trying to fuel save,” Karam said. “I’ve never had to push in the clutch. There were a few times where I’d go down into turn three and let out the clutch and it would try to spin on me and that was difficult.”
Karam ran out of fuel as the car crossed the finish line.
Blocker was adamant he had the fuel to make it even without the penalty, pushing to the max over the final 5 laps to try and catch Karam or force a mistake.
“That penalty didn’t help me at all,” Blocker said. “I was going to be able to go 26 laps no matter what...I thought I had a good shot at it. I actually saved too much fuel. Had I started pushing three or four laps earlier, maybe I could’ve got to him. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to pass him, but it was fun.”
While Blocker didn’t disagree that his contact with Eldred was a bit forced, he did say he felt Eldred did a poor job of letting the leaders around in an already difficult section.
“He did something really awkward,” Blocker said. “You either have to let someone go middle of the corner or on the straight. I got into him, but we both got out of it fine with no damage.”
Series points leader Ryan Otis also found himself in an intense battle over the final 10 laps, battling a heavily damaged car - the result of also catching the wall during his sole pit stop - and holding off rookie George Sandman by .317 seconds at the stripe.
“I had about 40 seconds of optional repairs that I didn’t take after that mistake,” Otis said. “I was struggling with the car after that. George was faster, but I knew it would be hard to pass. This is a difficult place to pass.”
Aaron Morgan continued his strong run of late with a fifth place finish, passing an out of fuel J.P. Windschitl by inches at the finish.
25 of the 31 starters finished the race. Eight cars finished on the lead lap. James Paulson and David Altman both retired after big incidents, the only two major crashes in the event.
Otis now leads Karam by 91 points. Dustin Wardlow, who finished 10th after needing a second fuel stop, is 24 points behind Karam in third.
The Lionheart Retro Series presented by ButtKicker takes a month off to prepare for its biggest race of the season. The ButtKicker Indy 250 is scheduled for Thursday, August 29 at 10:35 p.m. EST. Defending race winner Alex Saunders and Blocker have both indicated their intentions of running, adding to the already strong field. The race can be seen live on the iRacing eSports Network with Global SimRacing Channel producing the action.