Joe Sanchez wins MPI Cup Series playoffs opener at Darlington

(Photo Credit: Parker Bland)

The first race in the Round of 16 kicked off in a chaotic fashion. A 125-lap race at Darlington saw multi-car wrecks, a last-lap pass no one saw coming, and one driver locking in a spot to the Round of 12.

A playoff driver won the pole, but not the one you’d expect

After putting in a lap time of 29.625 Brandon Banks, a Round of 16 driver who made the playoffs via points, took home this week’s pole award as he beat out fellow playoff driver Warren Kyle Keith by .005 seconds. This was Banks second pole award of the season, as he also earned a pole award back in May when the MPI Cup Series visited Dover. As the early chaos ensued, a favorable track position proved to be valuable to Banks and others who qualified up front.


This phrase became common during the race on Sunday, as numerous times the caution flag flew, and many times it was for drivers having issues getting out of turn 4 and having loose racecars. Throughout the night, many playoff drivers were caught up in incidents, including Joe Sanchez, Daniel Michel, Alex Muscarella, Austin Reedy, and others. 


Possibly the most impactful yellow of the night came with 29 laps to go, as Steven Stempien lost control of his racecar while attempting to enter pit road for a green flag pit stop. At the moment only a few drivers were left who had not yet pitted under green, and this caution meant some drivers would be trapped a low or more down due to the leaders had not yet pitted, including playoff driver Zach Wilson would find himself trapped one lap down after this caution.  Wilson would never recover from this, as the yellow flag never flew again, and would finish this race in 20th position.

Merenda was leading till he wasn’t

After starting 7th, Mario Merenda found himself having early troubles, getting loose on the front straight, and had to struggle to save his car from spinning out. This moment didn’t defeat Merenda however if anything it just motivated him even more to claim the race lead, and claim it he would, just after the 3rd yellow of the night. Merenda took the lead on lap 43 and was challenged multiple times from there but never fell out of contention.

"The drivers are battling for every spot, every inch here tonight." Will Tiller - Commentator, Podium eSports

Throughout the race, drivers Joe Sanchez, Lawson Peel and others would challenge Merenda for the lead and attempt to keep pace, but each time, in the long run, it just seemed that Merenda had figured out a strategy to win and would pull away, leaving his competitors to battle for second place. 


With 10 laps to go, the top three positions belonged to Mario Merenda, Joe Sanchez, and Brandon Banks in that order, and it seemed as if Sanchez and Banks had no shot at catching the race leader. As the laps ticked down, however, Brandon Banks found some late race pace and passed Joe Sanchez for 2nd and began slowly creeping up on the leader. As Banks continued to get closer to the lead, Sanchez however, did not as he began to fall way behind the pace. With two laps to go, Banks is only behind by 03 seconds, and Sanchez is now 2.2 seconds off of the leader. Banks would continue to push and do his best to get closer to the lead, and then the unthinkable happens, Merenda has issues coming out of turn 4 coming to the white flag, and now Banks is directly behind him, and they head into turns 1 and 2 with Banks doing EVERYTHING he can to try and claim victory.


Then, Banks, possibly driving the car harder than he had all night gets loose out of turn two and slides the car below the racing line of the back straight and makes a great save to keep the car moving forward, and still appears to be competing for the lead. Then, it happens, Banks and Merenda get together and both cars spin out on the back straight. With first and second place now wrecked, Joe Sanches comes from over two seconds back to claim victory from the jaws of defeat. This crazy incident means that the drivers who took the white flag 1st and 2nd finished 10th and 11th more than 10 seconds behind the leader.


After the race, the Podium eSports team caught up with Mario Merenda to get his take on what happened on the last lap:

“Coming down to the end I wasn’t even looking in my mirror. Didn’t know Brandon was closing the gap. I felt really confident in my car on the long run. I made a mistake coming out of four coming to the white. Then got a mirror full of a Chevy bow tie. I could already tell he had better tires. Then in 1-2 I couldn’t get back on the power as he kept beating my bumper. I don’t blame him I would’ve done the same. Came off the corner and saw him go low. I didn’t know he was loose and trying to save his car. I went low to pinch him, (hoping to) make him uncomfortable entering. And we made contact. Just rough racing, wish it ended a different way” Mario Merenda

Sanchez has clinched a berth into the Round of 12

As we know, the MPI Cup Series uses the win and in format for their playoffs, meaning that with this victory Joe Sanchez has guaranteed that he will be part of the Round of 12 drivers who are looking to ultimately claim the season championship when the checkered flag falls at Phoenix Raceway in November. 


Who will join Sanches in advancing to the next round? The next two upcoming races at Kansas Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway will answer that question for us.


We encourage you to tune in every Sunday night to the Podium eSports Twitch Channel to follow all of the exciting MPI Cup Series Action. The next race will be on Sunday, September 11th at 9 PM EST.

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