For the first time ever, the NASCAR Cup Series‘ Next Gen cars have hit the track for a race. Kind of.
Hours after the seventh-generation Cup car was revealed, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series introduced the cars for competition at Darlington Raceway. While the real-life cars won’t make their début until 2022 (though the cars are also now available for players to download), Erik Jones ushered in the “new era” by scoring the win.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. started on the pole ahead of Denny Hamlin; Earnhardt was one of three guest drivers alongside Bobby Labonte and Jesse Iwuji, the latter winning the Fan Vote for the second straight race.
In true Pro Invitational fashion, the race quickly descended into chaos as a multi-driver wreck occurred while the lap counter was still in the sigit digits. Kyle Busch found himself flipping after one crash, while Hamlin was knocked out from terminal damage. The latter’s retirement prompted him to quip to spotter and Coca-Cola iRacing Series driver Keegan Leahy, “You’re only getting part time pay after a 12 lap DNF”.
William Byron broke up Earnhardt’s time at the front and led before his Hendrick Motorsports team-mate Alex Bowman wrecked. Matt DiBenedetto, who was collected in the crash, remarked, “I have come to the conclusion, I feel confident in saying I am better at driving the real 21 car vs the iracing virtual 21”.
Byron and Timmy Hill spent much of the second half battling until another massive wreck took place in the final laps. The restart came with three laps to go, and Jones slipped by on the penultimate lap to score his first PIS victory.
While an unofficial win, Jones’s victory marks the first trip to Darlington Victory Lane for the famed #43 since Richard Petty in 1967. Fittingly, Petty gave the starting command.
“Pretty awesome. Darlington’s been a great place to me in real life,” Jones posted on Twitter. He won the Southern 500 in 2019. “Didn’t really think we were ever going to have a shot to win one of the iRacing ones, maybe on a superspeedway or something, but it was awful cool to get up there at the end and get the victory and get STP some good TV time. Hopefully, we can get the Chevrolet to Victory Lane this weekend.”
The next PIS race is scheduled for 19 May at Circuit of the Americas followed by the Chicago Street Course on 2 June. The latter will also feature the Next Gen cars.