Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images (Courtesy of NASCAR and iRacing)

Hamlin Wraps Up Pro Invitational Series with virtual North Wilkesboro Win

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

Two months ago, Denny Hamlin started the eNASCAR/iRacing Pro Invitational Series campaign going to virtual victory lane at Homestead and he’ll end the season in virtual victory lane as the three-time Daytona 500 champion won Saturday’s North Wilkesboro 160.

Hamlin, who led 24 of 160 laps, had to overcome a quick fix after wrecking John Hunter Nemechek at the exit of Turn 1 on Lap 5. This appeared to be payback from last Sunday at Dover as the two had multiple incidents before Nemechek tried finishing Hamlin off and iRacing officials disqualified him for his actions.

From there, Hamlin proved himself that he had the fastest car among the 29-car grid by managing his tires and getting through traffic better than everyone else.

This was the case during a long green flag run past the halfway point when Hamlin was committed of making the bottom line work as he was hammering down race leader Christopher Bell. It took awhile to get by, but Hamlin was able to get the job done by passing Bell at the exit of Turn 3 on the 115th lap.

“That (wreck) wasn’t adventitious for us, but we were able to methodically make our way back up to the front,” said Hamlin. “Took the lead there on that long run with Christopher. I had a great battle with him.”

Hamlin’s road to victory had a roadblock when the 7th caution came out on Lap 128, erasing a 1.1 second lead over Bell. The leaders pitted a lap later and it was Ross Chastain who took the lead away from the Virginian driver.

The 8th and final caution came out on Lap 136 after a big wreck happened behind the leaders. Clint Bowyer turned Nemechek past the start/finish line, causing a big mess which collected his old foe Jeff Gordon, Cole Custer and many others.

Hamlin was be fourth in line coming to the final restart with 15 laps to go. From there, he took care of business by not only making quick work on Landon Cassill and Timmy Hill, but also chasing down Chastain for the race lead.

Hamlin’s race-winning move came with 9 laps to go after bumping Chastain out of the way in Turn 3, taking the lead for good as he beat Hill by 0.914 seconds.

“I wanted to control the race, but I definitely didn’t think those two tires would hang on as good as they did. We didn’t have as many laps towards the finish as I thought we were going to have,” Hamlin’s on the final restart. “Luckily, I got a good restart and got to third. I was able to get rid of Timmy pretty quick and once we got to Ross, it was right there. He tried to come down and we were just battling right there. That was a great finish there.”

Ross Chastain showed his displeasure on race winner Denny Hamlin following the North Wilkesboro 160 (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

A disgruntled Chastain, who ended up finishing fourth, showed his true colors by dumping Hamlin on the cool down lap.

Following the incident, Hamlin described his battle with Chastain as just two guys battling for the same real estate.

“I got a good run on him off of Turn 2 and as soon as he saw that I was going low,” said Hamlin. “He pulled down the straightaway and tried to block. We just let off the gas about the same time.”

Behind Hamlin and Hill were Tyler Reddick, Chastain, Austin Dillon. Followed by Garrett Smithley, Brennan Poole, Parker Kligerman, Kevin Harvick and Landon Cassill rounding out the top-10.

Other notable finishers included 13th place finisher Jon Wood, who made his Pro Invitational Series debut for the family-owned Wood Brothers Racing. Martin Truex, Jr. also made his debut and was collected in multiple accidents, but was able to finish at the tail end of the lead lap in 20th.

One the brains behind iRacing creating virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who finished 15th after being collected in a late-race crash in Turn 1 while running in the top-five.

NASCAR Hall of Famers Gordon, the winner of the last North Wilkesboro Cup race, and Bobby Labonte wound up 18th and 19th respectively.

“I had a blast being able to get out there with these guys,” said Gordon. “In the practice sessions and today with the race, it was so cool.”

Now it’s time to put the sim rigs away as the real-life Cup Series action resumes Sunday, May 17 at Darlington Raceway to kick off a four-race stretch that’ll span 11 days. Live coverage of the Darlington 400 begins at 3:30 pm EST on FOX. The race will be 293 laps.

eNASCAR/iRacing Pro Invitational Series Race – North Wilkesboro 160

Virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway

Saturday, May 9, 2020

1. (9) Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, 160.

2. (25) Timmy Hill, No. 66 Toyota, 160.

3. (3) Tyler Reddick, No. 31 Chevrolet, 160.

4. (8) Ross Chastain, No. 6 Ford, 160.

5. (11) Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet, 160.

6. (6) Garrett Smithley, No. 51 Chevrolet, 160.

7. (15) Brennan Poole, No. 15 Chevrolet, 160.

8. (10) Parker Kligerman, No. 77 Toyota, 160.

9. (13) Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Ford, 160.

10. (12) Landon Cassill, No. 89 Chevrolet, 160.

11. (21) JJ Yeley, No. 52 Ford, 160.

12. (29) Clint Bowyer, No. 14 Ford, 160.

13. (22) Jon Wood, No. 21 Ford, 160.

14. (26) Christopher Bell, No. 95 Toyota, 160.

15. (5) Dale Earnhardt, Jr., No. 8 Chevrolet, 160.

16. (1) Cole Custer, No. 41 Ford, 160.

17. (28) Joey Gase, No. 53 Ford, 160.

18. (23) Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, 160.

19. (16) Bobby Labonte, No. 18 Toyota, 160.

20. (14) Martin Truex, Jr., No. 19 Toyota, 160.

21. (24) Chris Buescher, No. 17 Ford, 155.

22. (17) Erik Jones, No. 20 Toyota, 150.

23. (20) Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, 147.

24. (7) John Hunter Nemechek, No. 38 Ford, 139.

25. (4) Corey LaJoie, No. 32 Ford, 133.

26. (19) Aric Almirola, No. 10 Ford, 103.

27. (2) Ryan Preece, No. 37 Chevrolet, 99.

28. (27) Michael McDowell, No. 34 Ford, 92.

29. (18) Ty Dillon, No. 13 Chevrolet, 84.

Margin of Victory: 0.914 seconds
 
Average Speed of Race Winner: 87.711 mph
 
Caution Flags: 8 for 53 laps
 
Lead Changes: 7 among 5 drivers
 
Lap Leaders: Cole Custer 1-12, Ryan Preece 13-31, Ross Chastain 32-40, Ryan Preece 41-53, Christopher Bell 54-114, Denny Hamlin 115-129, Ross Chastain 130-151, Denny Hamlin 152-160.
 
Leaders Summary (Driver, Laps Led): Christopher Bell 61, Ryan Preece 32, Ross Chastain 31, Denny Hamlin 24, Cole Custer 12.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography ranging from Idaho athletics to auto racing with ambitions of having his work recognized.