Hamlin holds off Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win NASCAR iRace at virtual Homestead
On a surreal Sunday when much of America, and indeed the world, was under some sort of lockdown or quarantine NASCAR was able to present its product to its fans and perhaps to an even wider audience.
NASCAR Cup series regular Denny Hamlin passed retired driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap to win the eNASCAR Dixie Vodka 150 at a virtual 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway. Timmy Hill, Chase Briscoe and Garrett Smithley rounded out the top five.
“I wanted the bottom, and he was really, really smart to ‑‑ I mean, he didn't win,” Hamlin said of the final laps. “But he was smart to kind of block the bottom there because the bottom lane at Homestead on iRacing just has tremendous more grip than what the lane I was running in, but I knew that the difference in the two lanes was about a tenth and a half to two tenths, and I thought my tires were about three tenths better. So I thought as long as I got beside him, I was going to be able to complete it, even though he was in the preferred groove.”
Hamlin had pitted under the races final caution with less than 20 laps to go.
“It was a risky call,” Hamlin said. “I don't know what we were, 18 laps to go or so and we decided to pit from third, and I didn't see anyone really come in behind me, so I just ‑‑ I was nervous. Restarting where I was, I thought I was going to get in a wreck or not make it back up there, but certainly would have done it the same exact way in real life.”
But it wasn’t necessarily about who won.
“It's always fun when you win, but regardless,” Hamlin said. “I mean, it's just ‑‑ it was a great event. 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.”
For the first time a major network carried a virtual NASCAR race live and in real time. Fox Sports booth announcers for the real-world NASCAR Cup series races, Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon, called the virtual race from a studio in Charlotte North Carolina. The pre-race featured a concert from country star Tim Dugger, an invocation from Motor Racing Outreach president Billy Mauldin and the National Anthem from recording artist Dylan Scott all from the locations where they are in quarantine.
There were 35 drivers invited from all three of NASCAR’s top touring series racing on the same Sunday that was originally scheduled to be at the real Homestead-Miami south of Miami. The coronavirus postponed all major pro sporting events starting last week. NASCAR has said that they are not expecting to race again in the real-world until Martinsville in Virginia on May 9.
Sunday’s event was organized by NASCAR, FOX Sports and iRacing with the support of dozens of current and former NASCAR drivers. NASCAR owns the iRacing series which has been around for 11 seasons and splits $300,000 in prize money over a 20-race schedule. The drivers were scattered around the Carolina area using racing rigs that ranged from professional setups costing tens of thousands of dollars to others that were attached to desks and cost only a few hundred dollars.
“It doesn't make that big of a difference,” said Hamlin who raced barefoooted in a rig that he estimated cost upwards of $40,000. “I had literally just a desktop computer in NASCAR 2003, which was the version before iRacing, and just a Logitech wheel, similar to what Ty Majeski had. The equipment means really, really small. It is like nothing, because the fast drivers are the fast drivers.”
Smithley won the pole position in pre-race qualifying, held in a group format. iRacing standout and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series regular Ty Majeski prevailed in a last chance qualifying race, leading all 20 laps as six drivers from the Xfinity Series and Gander Truck ranks advanced to the main event.
The field took the green flag led by Smithley but it was Hill who took the lead early in the 100 lap, 150 mile race which featured numerous cautions. But thanks to the virtual nature of the racing, the final 19 laps were run under green with the only crashes happening in the back of the field with the damaged cars simply disappearing from the screen. There were a total of 9 cautions that took up 42 of the 100 laps.
Those final 19 laps saw the contest come down to first Earnhardt and Hill, then Hamlin who had fresher tires then the two drivers up front. In the final laps Earnhardt led until two to go when Hamlin was able to get beside him. The two cars came together heading to the checkered flag with Hamlin crossing the line in first for the 31st win of his iRacing career.
Alex Bowman was sixth with Bubba Wallace, Ty Majesksi and Erik Jones rounding out the top 10.
Hamlin was one of the drivers instrumental in putting the event together. None of the drivers were paid, and Hamlin said earlier this week he’d donate $5,000 to Miami families affected by COVID-19 if he won the race and Kevin Harvick said he’d match Hamlin’s pledge. Fox Sports also pledged the match the donations.
From all accounts the race was a huge success giving NASCAR fans, and sports fans, a chance to see a live sporting event, even if that event was a virtual one.
Sunday’s race became the number one trending sports topic on Twitter, bringing a great deal of attention to the sport and as soon as the virtual dust settled the talk began to be about the next iRace..
“I think it's a success no matter what,” Hamlin said. People are talking about it. 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 in to a NASCAR race or go to a NASCAR race because they got introduced to racing today by iRacing, it's a success. So, I don't think you have to ‑‑ 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.”
eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Race
Dixie Vodka 150
Virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway
Sunday, March 20, 2020
1. (9) Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, 100.
2. (5) Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 8 Chevrolet, 100.
3. (7) Timmy Hill, No. 66 Toyota, 100.
4. (6) Chase Briscoe, No. 98 Ford, 100.
5. (1) Garrett Smithley, No. 51 Chevrolet, 100.
6. (12) Alex Bowman, No. 88 Chevrolet, 100.
7. (18) Bubba Wallace, No. 43 Chevrolet, 100.
8. (13) Ryan Preece, No. 37 Chevrolet, 100.
9. (3) Ty Majeski, No. 45 Chevrolet, 100.
10. (25) Erik Jones, No. 20 Toyota, 100.
11. (16) Matt DiBenedetto, No. 21 Ford, 100.
12. (10) Landon Cassill, No. 89 Chevrolet, 100.
13. (8) Parker Kligerman, No. 77 Toyota, 100.
14. (4) Ross Chastain, No. 6 Ford, 100.
15. (19) Joey Logano, No. 22 Ford, 100.
16. (11) Clint Bowyer, No. 14 Ford, 100.
17. (23) Ryan Truex, No. 40 Chevrolet, 100.
18. (29) Bobby Labonte, No. 19 Toyota, 100.
19. (28) Ty Dillon, No. 13 Chevrolet, 100.
20. (26) Justin Allgaier, No. 7 Chevrolet, 100.
21. (33) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 47 Chevrolet, 100.
22. (15) Austin Cindric, No. 12 Ford, 100.
23. (32) Michael McDowell, No. 34 Ford, 100.
24. (20) Chase Elliott, No. 9 Chevrolet, 100.
25. (30) Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford, 100.
26. (27) Christopher Bell, No. 95 Toyota, 100.
27. (24) Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet, 100.
28. (21) Chris Buescher, No. 17 Ford, 99.
29. (34) Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, 94.
30. (22) John Hunter Nemechek, No. 38 Ford, 93.
31. (35) Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, 93.
32. (17) Anthony Alfredo, No. 33 Chevrolet, 86.
33. (14) Kyle Larson, No. 42 Chevrolet, 86.
34. (2) William Byron, No. 24 Chevrolet, 79.
35. (31) Kurt Busch, No. 1 Chevrolet, 46.
Margin of victory: 0.153 seconds.
Caution periods: 9 for 42 laps.
Lead changes: 11 among 6 drivers.
Lap leaders: Byron (28), Smithley (24), Hamlin (14), Earnhardt (14), Hill (13), Briscoe (7).