By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The virtual world of NASCAR took center stage and it definitely didn’t disappoint as three-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin held off Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to win the first-ever eNASCAR/iRacing Pro Invitational Series race at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday.
Coming to the white flag, Dale Jr. had the advantage over Hamlin as he controlled the more gripped bottom lane, but Hamlin wouldn’t be denied as he had fresher tires after pitting late in the race despite being on the top groove.
Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry had a better exit coming into Turn 3, but unable to fully clear him. Coming to the line, Dale Jr.’s No. 8 FilterTime Chevrolet Camaro gained tremendous momentum but nearly tangled which got him sideways, trying to save the car from wrecking Hamlin and the rest of the field.
That sealed the triumphant win for Hamlin, who ended up racing barefoot, as Dale Jr. took second. Timmy Hill, Chase Briscoe and pole sitter Garrett Smithley rounded out the top-five.
“It’s always fun when you win, but regardless it was a great event for the racing community when NASCAR drivers come together and put 20 something drivers on the racetrack with such short notice,” Hamlin after winning the Dixie Vodka 150. “Everybody’s buying simulation rig 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.”
Dale Jr. commented that coming toward the final corner, he tried not wrecking Hamlin which would’ve caused a chaotic last-lap pileup and admitted that he probably gave him more room than he would’ve liked.
“I was trying to get a good finish and win the race, but not try to wreck anybody,” Dale Jr. said. “I probably gave Denny a little more room than I wanted to, but I had to from keep crashing into him or anybody else.
“We got together off of Turn 4 and thought I might’ve been able to get a photo finish at the line, but we got together and about wrecked. Denny had the tires and was really fast, but it was a fun race.”
For awhile, it appeared the race was coming down to two drivers people don’t hear about on any given weekend in the real-world. Those were Rick Ware Racing’s Smithley and this year’s Speedweeks media darling Hill from MBM Motorsports.
The duo with tremendous iRacing experience put on a beautiful showcase while the top stars of the Cup Series such as Busch brothers (Kurt and Kyle) and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, struggled getting used to the virtual 1.5-mile circuit.
If there was a turning point, it was with 23 laps to go when the ninth and final caution came out. Clint Bowyer and Ryan Preece were battling for position until Preece turned Bowyer into the Turn 1 wall.
Nowhere to go was outside pole sitter William Byron, who rammed into the front of Bowyer’s car. Byron ran out of the resets and wound up 34th after leading a race-high 28 of 100 laps.
Bowyer said he was distracted by looking at his mirrors as he saw Michael McDowell bounce off the Turn 4 wall and got into Ross Chastian.
“I saw those guys wreck in the mirror and I thought the caution was coming out,” Bowyer said. “I was waiting for it and then I was the caution.”
From there, “The Smithley and Hill Show” was no longer as Dale Jr. and Hamlin were men on a mission, taking control of the race inside of 10 laps to go which led to the thrilling finish between them.
When Hamlin was asked if he would’ve done the same thing to Dale Jr. in real life, he wasn’t hesitant to respond.
“I wanted the bottom. He was really smart to kind of block the bottom there because the bottom lane at Homestead on iRacing has tremendous more grip than what the lane I was running in,” Hamlin said. “I knew that the difference in the two lanes was about a tenth-and-a-half to two-tenths, and I felt my tires were about three-tenths better, so I thought as long as I got beside him I was able to complete it. Even though he was in the preferred groove.”
Hamlin added that pitting for fresh tires under the final caution period was a risky call due to how chaotic the race have been up to that point.
“We decided to pit from third and I didn’t see anyone really behind me, so I was nervous,” Hamlin said. “I restarted where I was and thought I was going to get in a wreck or not make it back up there, but certainly would’ve done it the same exact way in real life.”
Hamlin’s simulation days dates back to Papyrus’ NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, which caught the eye of Dale Jr. and ultimately led to a driver development contract with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2004, he hasn’t been on iRacing in three years until this past week to prepare himself for the 100-lap main event.
“Where I felt my struggle was going to be was that I haven’t done this in three years up until a week-and-a-half ago when I got back on it,” Hamlin said. “I’m excited to get the sport re-energized and get people talking about racing again today and I felt that’s pretty important.”
Not all was perfect for Hamlin as he had an incident under caution involving his daughter Taylor Hamlin, who tried handing him a drink.
“My extra man/child over the wall that was supposed to hand me my drink and do tear-off gave me a shaken Cherry Vanilla Coke bottle,” Hamlin said. “That didn’t work too well with electronics. That was a bit of a problem, but we got thorough it though. I got the hands clean, threw the towel and I was off.”
With real-life NASCAR action on hold through May 3rd due to the heavily talked about COVID-19 health crisis, Hamlin understands that by people talking about the sport, it will be the key ingredient for the Pro Invitational Series to be an ongoing success.
“I think it’s a success no matter what because people are talking about it,” Hamlin said. “If we got five new fans that were just sitting at home watching TV today that thought it was exciting and willing to tune in next week or go to a NASCAR race because they got introduced to racing today by iRacing, then it’s a success. There’s no number that makes it a success. If you make positive gain in your audience, whether it’s one person or one thousand, then it’s a good thing.
“I think a lot of that is going to fall on the shoulder on the drivers. As long as you have drivers wanting to participate, you’re going to have a product people want to see. If you can get that first step, then most likely you can keep this thing going because ultimately people out there, the fans, want to see their favorite driver. They don’t care if they’re racing virtually or in the real world, they want to see their favorite driver win.”
Prior to the race, Hamlin said he would be pledging $100 for each lap he led and $5000 if he were to win it. He led 14 laps which put his pledge total to $1400 and in addition of winning the Dixie Vodka 150, Hamlin will donate a grand total of $6400 to the families affected by COVID-19 in the Homestead-Miami area.
Hamlin’s primary sponsor FedEx was on his car as a personal thank you for helping out the community under extremely difficult circumstances.
“It’s great we’re able to give some value back to the sponsors. When you put yourself on an FS1 audience, you’re going to get some publicity,” Hamlin said. “That’s always good and it’s more of a thank you for them, they didn’t pay us for anything. They’re busy right now delivering a lot of medical supplies for people that need it. With the donation I and Kevin Harvick made, we’ve made a good chunk of contributions today.”
eNASCAR/iRacing Pro Invitational Series Race – Dixie Vodka 150
Virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway
Sunday, March 22, 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.
Did Not Qualify: Jeffrey Earnhardt, Jesse Iwuji, Justin Haley, Stewart Friesen, Myatt Snider
Margin of Victory: 0.153 seconds
Average Speed of Race Winner: 104.326 mph
Caution Flags: 9 for 42 laps
Lead Changes: 11 among 6 drivers
Lap Leaders: William Byron 1-15, Denny Hamlin 16-28, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 29-38, William Byron 39-50, Timmy Hill 51, William Byron 52, Timmy Hill 53-60, Chase Briscoe 61-67, Garrett Smithley 68-91, Timmy Hill 92-95, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 96-99, Denny Hamlin 100
Leaders Summary (Driver, Laps Led): William Byron 28, Garrett Smithley 24, Denny Hamlin 14, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 14, Timmy Hill 13, Chase Briscoe 7