Live NASCAR racing at North Wilkesboro Speedway is not a concept that The Checkered Flag—or any online motorsport site—expected to be covering when 2020 began, but the circumstances have permitted for it to happen (virtually).
The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series wrapped up its seven-race slate with the Wilkes 160 at the historic track, which last held NASCAR action in 1996. The speedway—in its 1985 version—was introduced to iRacing in advance for the race, with a public release set for the service’s quarterly update in June; iRacing will also début the 1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Ford Thunderbird with the update. By the end, Denny Hamlin used the bumper to beat his way to the victory.
Cole Custer and Ryan Preece started on the front row for the race. To honor North Wilkesboro, many drivers ran special paint schemes, including NASCAR Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte who used liveries of their cars from the final Cup Series event at the speedway. Gordon also won said race in his famed #24 Rainbow Warriors car.
After five laps, John Hunter Nemechek and Hamlin collided in turn two, sending the two around and collecting others. The race resumed on lap 13 with Custer in front.
Erik Jones and Michael McDowell brought out another caution on lap 30. Two more yellow flags were flown over the next twenty-five laps when Custer hit the backstretch wall on lap 42 and Chris Buescher wrecked on lap 53. Ross Chastain and Preece spent time in the lead between these runs.
Christopher Bell and Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the field to the restart on lap 62. Seven laps later, Parker Kligerman wrecked out for another caution. Further carnage ensued on lap 75 when Landon Cassill and Austin Dillon tangled exiting turn four, with Timmy Hill slamming into the pit entry wall and Tyler Reddick inadvertently driving onto pit road.
Bell continued to lead when the race resumed. Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Hamlin eventually passed him on the inside exiting turn four to take first.
On lap 127, Labonte hit the backstretch wall to produce the next yellow. Under caution, Corey LaJoie retired after his racing rig’s brake pedal broke off. Chastain and Hill paced the grid to the restart six laps later.
After just two laps of green-flag racing, Clint Bowyer clipped Nemechek, sending the former around and turning Gordon along the way. Gordon and Bowyer, who feuded in real life in 2012, traded banter throughout the race broadcast as part of their Fox NASCAR analyst duties.
The next restart took place with fifteen laps remaining as Chastain stayed in front. Two laps later, Martin Truex Jr. spun, though no caution was waved.
On lap 151, Chastain got loose and went wide, enabling Hamlin to take the lead. As Chastain fell, he collided with Cassill, though he did not spin and the race stayed under green. With Chastain out of win contention, Hill began chasing down Hamlin.
Hill could not catch Hamlin as he pulled away for his second Pro Invitational win. It is a fitting way for the reigning Daytona 500 winner to wrap up the sim racing slate after winning the inaugural race in March.
Although no official standings were kept, Hill is mathematically the Pro Invitational Series champion. He scored one win and battled with William Byron throughout the season, though Byron—along with his Hendrick Motorsports team-mates and the Team Penske drivers—did not enter the finale to focus on NASCAR’s return next Sunday.
Hill tweeted, “We are the #ProInvitationalSeries Champions! Finished 2nd in the final race at North Wilkesboro, what a fun track that is! Excited to get back to @NASCAR racing next week at Darlington now!”