The real racecar drivers are back at it again on the computer-generated race tracks.
Almost exactly one year since the Covid-19 pandemic forced NASCAR stars on to their computers for our entertainment, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series returned in a more formal setting on Wednesday night to give everyone a first look at what may go down in the real world Bristol Dirt Track.
While it may not be exactly what everyone thinks will happen this weekend (especially the part about going wide open on a freshly cultivated track), drivers were able to get some sort of idea how things will go after the track gets rubbered in.
After three heats and a 70-lap feature event, William Byron stole the show, winning the season-opening iRacing invitational event and collecting his fourth career Pro Invitational Series victory. Byron held off a late charge from Tyler Reddick to score the victory. Christopher Bell, Garrett Smithley, and James Davison rounded out the top five.
“I kept choking on the restarts in (turns) one and two,” Byron said. “I kept hitting the wall, and (Tyler) Reddick was really good on the top. I’ve just got to be that good in the real cars, I don’t know. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it. Thanks to iRacing, they do an awesome job.”
There were three cautions for 23 laps in the feature race, most of that time dedicated to commercial breaks on FOX Sports 1. Davison started on the pole and led the first 18 laps. Only four lead changes occurred during the 70 lap event, with Reddick leading one lap, Chris Buescher leading 13 laps, and Byron leading the most at 38.
HEAT RACES IN LIEU OF STAGE RACING
In order to set the field for the first race of the season, after qualifying, three heat races took place to determine who raced. Only 21 drivers would start in the main event, so each heat would take the Top 7 finishers. With no last chance race, everyone only had one shot to make it through their designated heat of 20 laps.
Joey Logano, racing from the FOX Sports studio alongside Clint Bowyer, was able to snag the fastest lap in qualifying with a lap time of 19.209 seconds. Logano led the first heat to green but quickly fell back as Bell took control. As Logano struggled to maintain pace, he eventually levelled out around fifth, which was good enough to advance. Upfront, Bell lost the lead to Davison just after halfway. Davison never looked back, winning the heat and subsequently taking the pole for the feature.
Byron took the lead from Buescher at the start of the second heat and never faltered from that spot, leading all 20 laps. The racing got physical as Dale Earnhardt Jr, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr and others all tried to find their way into the Top 7. Instead of those big names, Quin Houff fought valiantly to collect the final transfer spot.
The final heat had the least amount of drivers, but arguably had the most action for both the lead and the transfer spot. Smithley started first and led a good chunk of laps, but Ryan Preece kept him honest throughout the first three quarters. Meanwhile, the battle for the transfer was back and forth between Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, and BJ McLeod. After a bit, Jones and McLeod fell off, but DiBenedetto went to the wire with Dillon, barely scraping his way in. At the head of the field, Preece passed Smithley with two to go and went on to take the final heat win.
RISE OF THE BACKMARKERS
The list of drivers to not qualify was nearly half of the entry list, but many bigger names in racing were held out of the main event. Earnhardt Jr and Hamlin were the two who battled for the Homestead-Miami win last year to kick off the series, but neither would make the 21-car feature on Wednesday. Truex Jr, Dillon, Kurt Busch, Ryan Blaney, and even the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott all failed to qualify.
Instead, guys like Smithley, Davison, Houff, Joey Gase, Justin Haley, and Corey LaJoie were all racing for the big prize. There was not an official NASCAR purse for this race, but iRacing put up $5,000 to the winner to give away to the charity of their choice.
One of the bigger stories entering the day was that the Pro Invitational Series Texas winner and full-time MBM Motorsports driver in the NASCAR Cup Series Timmy Hill was excluded from the final entry list. NASCAR stated that they would provide 36 entries to the 36 Cup Series chartered race teams, and the remaining spots could be filled by FOX Sports or iRacing. Hill did not meet the criteria as a non-chartered team driver, and only two extra spots were given out to FOX Sports Analyst Clint Bowyer and iRacing Executive Director Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The original entry list also saw Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski missing, but that was as intended. Austin Cindric was originally slated to fill in for the No. 2 Mustang, but after fans pleaded to #LetTimmyRace on Twitter, Cindric offered up his fill in spot, with both Keselowski and Team Penske approving.
In practice, Hill turned the fastest lap of the entire night, a 17.532 second scorcher.
The Top 3 finishers on Wednesday (Byron, Bell, Reddick) might look like a normal Cup Series running order on any given Sunday. With Smithley and Davison rounding out the Top 5, two guys who normally fight for Top 30 finishes with Rick Ware Racing, it’s evident that this iRacing series could showcase guys who normally don’t get this type of exposure in real life. In fact, five drivers in the Top 11 spots haven’t gotten a Top 10 finish in their entire NASCAR Cup Series career.
TALLADEGA NEXT, CHICAGO STREET COURSE ANNOUNCED
We’ll all have to wait another month until the next race in the series at Talladega Superspeedway on 21st April. Last year, Alex Bowman scored the virtual victory in a photo finish, three-wide with Ryan Preece and Corey LaJoie.
Also announced on Wednesday, the fifth race of the second season will feature a fantasy track that has yet to be released on iRacing. The Chicago Street Course will take place on 2nd June, FOX Sports’ final race before they hand the virtual series off to NBC Sports. The 2.19-mile development track features 12 turns and will serve as a first look at something NASCAR hopes to one day implement in the real world series.
Between Talladega and Chicago, the series will also feature Darlington Raceway on May 5th and Circuit of the Americas on May 19th.
BRISTOL DIRT TRACK – FEATURE RACE RESULTS
- 24 William Byron Hendrick Motorsports 70 LAPS
- 8 Tyler Reddick Richard Childress Racing +1.334
- 20 Christopher Bell Joe Gibbs Racing +1.679
- 51 Garrett Smithley Rick Ware Racing +1.873
- 15 James Davison Rick Ware Racing +2.270
- 48 Alex Bowman Hendrick Motorsports +2.674
- 5 Kyle Larson Hendrick Motorsports +3.430
- 2 Timmy Hill Team Penske +3.675
- 42 Ross Chastain Chip Ganassi Racing +3.764
- 53 Joey Gase Rick Ware Racing +4.643
- 00 Quin Houff StarCom Racing +4.934
- 18 Kyle Busch Joe Gibbs Racing +5.805
- 17 Chris Buescher Roush Fenway Racing +7.995
- 22 Joey Logano Team Penske +8.345
- 77 Justin Haley Spire Motorsports +10.342
- 37 Ryan Preece JTG Daugherty Racing +14.442
- 21 Matt DiBenedetto Wood Brothers Racing +16.520
- 34 Michael McDowell Front Row Motorsports +17.660
- 38 Anthony Alfredo* Front Row Motorsports +4 LAPS
- 23 Bubba Wallace 23XI Racing +6 LAPS
- 7 Corey LaJoie Spire Motorsports +16 LAPS
FAILED TO QUALIFY (17 DRIVERS)
- 1 Kurt Busch Chip Ganassi Racing 8TH – HEAT 1
- 3 Austin Dillon Richard Childress Racing 8TH – HEAT 3
- 6 Ryan Newman Roush Fenway Racing 13TH – HEAT 2
- 9 Chase Elliott Hendrick Motorsports 10TH – HEAT 1
- 10 Aric Almirola Stewart-Haas Racing 12TH – HEAT 1
- 11 Denny Hamlin Joe Gibbs Racing 12TH – HEAT 2
- 12 Ryan Blaney Team Penske 11TH – HEAT 1
- 14 Chase Briscoe* Stewart-Haas Racing 13TH – HEAT 1
- 19 Martin Truex Jr Joe Gibbs Racing 11TH – HEAT 2
- 41 Cole Custer Stewart-Haas Racing 9TH – HEAT 1
- 43 Erik Jones Richard Petty Motorsports 10TH – HEAT 3
- 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr JTG Daugherty Racing 11TH – HEAT 3
- 52 Josh Bilicki Rick Ware Racing 8TH – HEAT 2
- 78 BJ McLeod Live Fast Racing 12TH – HEAT 3
- 79 Clint Bowyer FOX Sports / iRacing Invite 9TH – HEAT 2
- 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr FOX Sports / iRacing Invite 10TH – HEAT 2
- 99 Daniel Suarez Trackhouse Racing Team 9TH – HEAT 3
*Denotes Rookie of the Year Contender