Miss seeing your favourite NASCAR Cup Series driver on track? Look no further than the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. On Sunday, the newly-created sim racing league kicked off its season with the Dixie Vodka 150 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
In a laid-back but chaotic race, real-life underdogs but sim racing talents Garrett Smithley and Timmy Hill duked it out with Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, Xfinity Series driver Chase Briscoe, and fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the race win. By the checkered flag, Hamlin edged out Earnhardt in a dramatic finish.
The field of thirty-five was whittled down from forty entrants. Twenty-nine members of the grid were Cup racers, all of whom were automatically guaranteed a spot in the lineup. Such drivers ranged in sim racing skill, from William Byron who got his racing start on iRacing to those like champions Kyle Busch who had no experience on the platform. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson was also a late entrant, racing on a setup that included an open-wheel seat and wheel to prepare him for his IndyCar test at Barber Motorsports Park.
Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series drivers were left to battle it out via qualifying time and the Last Chance Qualifier for the final six spots. As Smithley won the pole, Ty Majeski, Briscoe, Anthony Alfredo, Ryan Truex, Justin Allgaier, and Austin Cindric raced their ways in.
Jeffrey Earnhardt, Jesse Iwuji, Justin Haley, Stewart Friesen, and Myatt Snider failed to qualify. Cindric, Haley, and Iwuji had wrecked in the LCQ while racing for the final transfer spot.
“3 wide I was in the middle, Cindric came off the wall just enough to make contact with me as I was coming up off the exit, from there I was loose in the middle of a 3-wide sandwich,” Iwuji explained on Twitter. “Definitely sorry that it took out Justin Haley as we were battling for 6th place transfer”.
2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Labonte also took part, driving a #19 Joe Gibbs Racing car typically driven by Martin Truex Jr. in real life. Clint Bowyer served as in-car commentator for Fox Sports.
A strong start by Smithley did not last long as Byron passed him entering turn three to lead the opening lap. Shortly after, Cindric and Alfredo made contact on the frontstretch and spun, sending the latter into the wall. However, they were able to remain in the race thanks to iRacing’s free reset feature.
Kurt Busch also suffered a similar fate racing Johnson after John Hunter Nemechek and Allgaier wrecked. It was the first in a series of unfortunate events for Busch as he was involved in further crashes throughout the day.
“Terrible clean up crew. Come on @nascar,” NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell quipped on Twitter.
Hamlin took the lead on pit road and the race resumed on lap 19. A lap later, a loose Johnson triggered a multi-car wreck on the frontstretch. Bowyer, Landon Cassill, and Ryan Preece were also collected.
“This day’s gone from good to bad,” Bowyer remarked on the FS1 broadcast. “[…] These cars are harder to drive—I hate to say that—than our cars.”
Hamlin led the field to the lap 26 restart. Behind him, Chastain and Byron fought for second until they clipped in turn one. Exiting turn two, Chastain was involved in another wreck when Roush Fenway Racing team-mate Chris Buescher collided with Allgaier, sending him into the #6.
Earnhardt and Hill comprised the front row for the restart on lap 33. Earnhardt, who had retired from full-time Cup racing after 2017, Six laps later, Briscoe, Busch and Parker Kligerman wrecked on the backstretch; Chastain and Kyle Busch also took damage.
The race resumed on lap 44 and lasted five laps before Erik Jones spun. The next restart took place on lap 50. After two laps, Hill passed Byron for first with Smithley in tow, leading to the uncommon 1–2 pair of an MBM Motorsports and Rick Ware Racing car.
On lap 59, Chase Elliott was hit by Bubba Wallace and spun up into the turn two wall to end the longest green-flag run of the race to that point.
“Crew chief cant see down there,” Cup driver Ryan Blaney, a close friend of the two and Elliott’s crew chief for the race, tweeted. “Need a new spotter.”
A pair of Xfinity regulars in Briscoe and Chastain led the grid to the green on lap 66. On lap 69, things took a not-so-nice turn for Bowman when he got loose while blocking Hendrick Motorsports team-mate Byron on the frontstretch, with Busch impacting the sideways Bowman.
Bowman immediately took to Twitter to blame the wreck on his dog Finn:
“[I]’m not spotting today don’t @ me on that one,” Bowman’s real-life spotter Kevin Hamlin tweeted.
Yet another incident came on lap 77 after Michael McDowell hit the wall off turn four and hit Chastain. Later on the frontstretch, Bowyer was turned by Preece, with Byron unable to avoid the spinning Bowyer.
Smithley, Hill, Kligerman, and Labonte held the top four spots for the restart with 18 laps to go. Labonte elected to go high, dropping him out of the top five as Smithley held the top spot.
With concerns of time constraints, the race continued green for its remainder even as Kyle Larson hit the wall. At the front, Smithley and Hill distanced themselves from the pack while Earnhardt and Briscoe moved into third and fourth.
On newer tyres, The Earnhardt/Briscoe duo eventually caught the leaders as the laps remaining ticked into the single digits. After passing Smithley, Earnhardt began fighting with Hill. Behind them, Hamlin flew through the field to catch the top three.
Earnhardt finally cleared his opponents with two laps to go, but Hamlin remained on his tail. Hamlin attempted a move on Earnhardt’s outside on the backstretch. The two ran side-by-side to the checkered flag, with Earnhardt sliding onto the apron as Hamlin beat him to the line.
It was Hamlin’s thirty-first iRacing victory. The win also comes at a good cause: Hamlin intends to donate $100 for each lap led and $5,000 if he won to COVID-19 relief efforts. Kevin Harvick and Fox have also matched the pledge.
Hill tweeted, “DANG! Should’ve put tires on there at the end! Fun race all around! Congrats @dennyhamlin on the win! Nice job all race to the top 5 @DaleJr, @GarrettSmithley, @ChaseBriscoe5!”