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Denny Hamlin has won the two biggest NASCAR races in 2020. In February, Hamlin won the Daytona 500 ahead of Ryan Blaney. And on Sunday, he beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the NASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
OK, it’s just a slight — or large — exaggeration to say that Sunday’s virtual NASCAR race was one of the biggest of the season. But if it felt like a big deal to you because of the coronavirus pandemic causing a halt to all sports across North America, that’s OK. Sitting down to watch a real NASCAR race on a Sunday afternoon is normalcy a lot of us would like to have at the moment.
But that normalcy doesn’t exist. So a virtual NASCAR race had to do, even if it was a bit hairy and choppy.
The 35 NASCAR drivers participating in Sunday’s race were of varying sim-racing skill levels. Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson started last and had a moment where it looked like he had never sim-raced before. The field lapped him so quickly at one point that he caused a huge crash. Reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Busch was never really a factor either.
Drivers like Garrett Smithley and Timmy Hill regularly run as backmarkers in the Cup Series because they drive for teams with extremely limited resources. On Sunday at virtual Homestead, they qualified and ran up front for most of the race.
If you’re a NASCAR fan who enjoys watching crashes, the virtual race was right up your alley. There were six cautions for wrecks in the first 46 laps of the race and the eighth caution of the race came on lap 69. The last two real Cup Series races at Homestead had a combined eight cautions through 534 laps. This was not the greatest display of sim-racing skill you’ve ever seen.
But it filled a void that a lot of us have in our lives for sporting events. And helped NASCAR in its push to popularize sim-racing. There’s no denying that Sunday’s race was the biggest opportunity and platform NASCAR could have hoped for — in admittedly awful circumstances — to continue its promotion of iRacing. And what better way to do it than to have Cup Series stars show it off?
If you were new to iRacing, you probably immediately noticed the things that make it different than real racing. Clint Bowyer’s car went straight through Landon Cassill’s car completely unscathed during a crash. Cars drive through each other when leaving their pit stalls. And the cars on the track at virtual Homestead were a lot closer together than they are in reality.
Fox tried its best to make it like a real broadcast, too. The telecast even included a pre-race prayer and a national anthem sung by a singer holding his hand over his heart in front of his (real) garage door. And there were shots of virtual fans in the stands who were not being socially responsible and distancing themselves six feet away from each other.
Mike Joy explained iRacing just like he tries to explain other things during real races, and Jeff Gordon got excited about climactic racing moments. Larry McReynolds even inexplicably tried to show us what the end of the last 10 real races at Homestead could tell us about when a caution could come at the end of the virtual race at e-Homestead. That happened despite the last two crashes of the race not resulting in cautions because the game platform can simply teleport damaged cars back to pit road while the race continues.
Sunday’s race gave us the racing we all wanted to see. It was funny. Hamlin drove barefoot. Many others wore T-shirts and shorts. It was far from perfect, yet it still gave racing addicts a hit to satiate their fixes and provided other sports fans a respite from taped basketball and football games airing on other channels.
Is it sustainable as we navigate our world without sports for the foreseeable future? Hardcore NASCAR fans and sim-racers will likely continue to tune in. Will others? We’ll find out over the coming weeks. Though I probably speak for everyone involved when I say that real racing can’t safely get here soon enough.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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