By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service
There’s been no shortage of action and intrigue in the opening four rounds of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, but even the most experienced of the virtual competitors expect it all to turn up a notch with Sunday’s GEICO 70 at virtual Talladega Superspeedway (1 p.m. ET on FOX where available, FS1 and the FOX Sports App).
Fourteen former Talladega winners are entered this week as the sport continues to compete virtually and offer fans a racing retreat of sorts as the country deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The entry list for this week’s highly-anticipated virtual Talladega stop includes one of the track’s all-time best – and easily most popular – in six-time NASCAR Cup Series Talladega winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. And for the first time in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series’ brief history, another six-time Talladega winner, NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, is coming out of the FOX television broadcast booth to test his own virtual Talladega grit competing against this talented entry list.
“Man, I’m going to give it a try,” Gordon said Wednesday revealing his big news while doing a FOX Sports iRacing broadcast.
“We’ve been trying to get me behind the wheel of one of these sim rigs and I’m coming out of retirement, boys!”
This week’s grid will include former Talladega winners like Gordon’s fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer, Bobby Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR Cup Series champion who won a NASCAR Cup Series race at the big track in 1998 and then scored back-to-back IROC (International Race of Champions) wins in 2000-2001.
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion, is right on Gordon and Earnhardt’s heels with five real-time victories at Talladega, earning his very first NASCAR Cup Series trophy with the win in the 2009 spring race at the track. His Team Penske teammate Joey Logano has three wins at Talladega and their teammate Ryan Blaney is the most recent winner, taking the 2019 Playoff race win there.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and popular driver/eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational in-race analyst Clint Bowyer both own a pair of Talladega trophies.
Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch along with former series champ Kevin Harvick also have victories at Talladega, along with the opening eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational race winner Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chase Elliott and Aric Almirola, who will be making his eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series debut on Sunday.
The last driver to win back-to-back at Talladega on the NASCAR schedule was Gordon, who swept the races in 2007. The last three races at the track have crowned first-time Talladega winners – Almirola (2018) and Elliott and Blaney in 2019.
When it comes to the virtual world, however, the task is absolutely to find a way to disrupt the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational dominance of 22-year old William Byron. The current driver of Gordon’s former No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has won the last two races and led more laps (319) than any other driver. His nearly 300 iRacing victories in over 1,200 iRacing starts makes him the virtual veteran to beat.
Even with his superior skills in the virtual race world, Byron concedes it will be a whole different challenge this week on Talladega’s notoriously challenging 2.66-mile high-banked superspeedway.
“It’s going to be a tough race,” Byron said, looking ahead after his virtual Richmond victory last weekend.
“I think virtually you’re going to see a lot of aggression and things of that nature.”
Fellow iRacing veteran Timmy Hill – the Texas Motor Speedway Pro Invitational Race winner and only driver with finishes of third or better in all four Pro Invitational Series races – must be considered an absolute threat for victory this week. Although, ironically, neither Byron nor Hill has won at Talladega in NASCAR, but they have been the class of the field at every virtual stop.
This week’s event will include a qualifying session (two laps per driver) just prior to the race start. Rules allow for one “reset” should a car wreck and suffer big damage in the race and there will be a maximum of three potential Green-White-Checkered finishes.
Drivers from other NASCAR national series – from the NASCAR Xfinity Series to the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series to the ARCA Menards Series – will compete in the Saturday Night Thunder event at virtual Talladega Superspeedway. Two-lap single car qualifying will set heat grids. The top 20 cars from the two heats will transfer to the 57-lap (150-mile) main event which begins at 8 p.m. (ET) and will be broadcast on NASCAR’s YouTube channel and eNASCAR.com/live. More than 50 cars are currently entered.
Considering the bold big moves fans normally see on the real Talladega Superspeedway, expectations are high, the intrigue is there, and certainly the driver lineup is top-notch for Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race. It’s been tough to tell who has enjoyed this high profile opportunity to race more – competitor or fan.
“Looking forward to a bunch of fun at Talladega,” Hill posted on social media immediately after his runner-up effort to Byron at virtual Richmond last weekend.
And that’s something NASCAR fans have learned to count on.