Denny Hamlin edged Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a door-banging final push to the checkered flag in Sunday‘s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series Invitational debut event, the Dixie Vodka 150, at iRacing‘s virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin, who also won the NASCAR Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500, admitted Sunday‘s iRacing event was certainly a different experience. He noted that he received a shaken Coca-Cola from his at-home pit crew (young daughter) during a caution period and actually competed barefoot.
“I like feeling the pedals, with shoes I just can‘t do it, so I always go barefoot,” Hamlin said with a laugh. Ultimately, he certainly provided a thrilling last-lap pass indicative of NASCAR‘s best brand of tight racing — real or virtual. Shoes or not.
“I just ran my line, he gave me the proper space and we were able to race to the line,‘‘ Hamlin said, noting that he had an advantage of newer tires.
Earnhardt also noted the tight finish.
“I‘ve raced him on here (iRacing) for two decades, I thought he‘d be hard to beat,‘‘ Earnhardt said.
“I was trying to get a good finish, trying to win the race and trying not to wreck anybody. So I think I probably gave Denny a little more room than I really wanted to, but I had to keep from crashing him or anybody else. We got together off of (Turn) 4. I thought I might have been able to get a photo finish at the line, but we got together in (Turn) 4 and I about wrecked there.
“But it was a fun race. Denny had better tires and he was just really, really fast, but it was a good race.‘‘
Timmy Hill, Chase Briscoe and pole-winner Garrett Smithley rounded out the top five in an event that had nine caution periods and certainly tested the iRacing skills of NASCAR‘s top names.
The 100-lap virtual race had all the crowd-pleasing, competitive elements to provide an afternoon escape from the worries about the COVID-19 virus that has paused all live action in the sports world. Hamlin pledged before the race to donate $100 per lap led plus $5,000 for winning the race — for a total of $6,400 this afternoon — to The NASCAR Foundation to assist Miami-area families affected by the virus, while others matched and added on to his donation.
Both longtime race fans and — judging by social media — lots of new eyeballs checked out the FS1 broadcast called by FOX Sports‘ regulars, Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds. And the race included a broad spectrum of NASCAR regulars representing all three national series — from the NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.
The list of competitors included highly accomplished drivers like past NASCAR Cup Series champions Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano along with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte. Also racing were the sport‘s decades-long Most Popular Driver Earnhardt and Chase Elliott, who assumed that crown when Earnhardt retired from full-time competition two years ago.
And all these longtime NASCAR champs were dutifully challenged by a group of competitors with lots of iRacing experience such as Hill and Smithley.
The virtual race provided all the exciting, lap-by-lap intrigue fans would have seen in a regular points race.
Hamlin, who drove a replica of his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the NASCAR Cup Series, was among the pre-race favorites, along with Smithley and Hill, who has accumulated 673 iRacing wins but his best NASCAR Cup Series finish is 14th. Smithley‘s best NASCAR Cup Series finish is 28th.
While Hamlin‘s iRacing set-up cost nearly $40,000 (by his own estimate) and featured all the modern accoutrements, Hill was racing on a basic steering wheel he attached to a desk at home. It all shows how this form of competition evens the playing field, making it more about experience than equipment.
“Wow what a day!,‘‘ Smithley said on Twitter following the race. “Pole, led laps, came home 5th. Awesome race! Really good way for all of us to have some fun.‘‘
Hill was equally as energized by the afternoon and his showing.“DANG! Should‘ve put tires on there at the end!,‘‘ he said on Twitter. “Fun race all around!”
Rounding out the top 10 were Cup Series regulars Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace and Ryan Preece. Gander Trucks driver Ty Majeski — who led all 20 laps in winning the qualifying race to advance to Sunday‘s 100-lapper — finished ninth. And Hamlin‘s JGR Cup Series teammate Erik Jones was 10th.
William Byron, a pre-race favorite who started on the outside pole position, led laps early but was collected in an accident late in the race. He finished 34th. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, seven-time champ Johnson, finished 31st after also being involved in a couple incidents.
Johnson smilingly said of his racing experience on Sunday, “It‘s quite different to say the least.‘‘
Following the race, Johnson posted on social media. “Awesome to see our industry come together for the #ProInvitationalSeries today. Appreciate all the fans who tuned in and everyone who made this possible.‘‘
That was certainly the overall feeling from the drivers who participated.
“It‘s always fun when you win, but regardless, I mean, it‘s just — it was a great event,‘‘ Hamlin said. “For the community, the racing community, the NASCAR drivers to come together and put 20-something drivers on the racetrack with such short notice, everyone is buying up simulation rigs this week and last week getting ready for the event, and for it all to come together and have a great finish, I think it was definitely a success.‘‘
And, Hamlin added, “If we got five new fans that were just sitting at home watching TV today that thought it was exciting and is willing to tune in next week or willing to tune into a NASCAR race or go to a NASCAR race because they got introduced to racing today by iRacing, it‘s a success.
“There‘s no number that makes it a success. If you made positive gains in your audience, whether it be one person or 1,000, it‘s a good thing.‘‘