Photo: Walter G. Arce, Sr./ASP, Inc.

Weekend Preview: North Wilkesboro 160 at virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway

By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service

In a much-applauded highly-anticipated schedule move the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series – featuring many of the sport’s top competitors – will conclude its inaugural run with the North Wilkesboro 160 at the virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway on Saturday, May 9 at 3 p.m. ET on FOX (where available and subject to change), FS1 and the FOX Sports app.

Jeff Gordon, who won the last NASCAR Cup Series race at the historic former stop on the series schedule (Sept. 29, 1996), will again step away from his FOX Sports commentating duties to compete in the virtual race this week. He is the only driver entered with a previous NASCAR Cup Series start at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

“It’ll be hard to top my last race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, but I’m going to give it a try,” Gordon said in confirming his entry on Twitter this week.

Joining him on the grid is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is largely responsible for getting the iRacing Series to add the historic North Carolina 0.625-mile oval as a virtual track option. In December, Earnhardt and friends from the racing industry cleaned up the vacant facility and prepped the track. The mostly-retired two-time Daytona 500 winner even got behind the wheel of some heavy equipment himself – all with the goal of refurbishing the one-time popular venue to be scanned and added to the iRacing group of tracks.

Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion, will be making his eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series debut in the No. 19 Toyota. And Jon Wood, a third-generation member of the legendary Wood Brothers Racing family will steer their No. 21 Ford in place of the team’s current NASCAR Cup Series driver Matt DiBenedetto this week. William Byron – a three-time eNASCAR iRacing Invitational Series race winner – will not be competing this week – in fact, none of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates are either.

There is a certain amount of irony in this week’s track stop – essentially a merger between NASCAR’s historic roots and its modern-day technical opportunity.

This level of virtual competition would have been unthinkable to the drivers who turned so many laps on the track during NASCAR’s early heyday. Bob Flock won the first North Wilkesboro Speedway NASCAR Cup Series race in October of 1949. And the history of the track features some of the sport’s most interesting milestones.

For example, Lee Petty (1959-60), Rex White (1960-61) and Richard Petty (1962-63) each won three consecutive races in a nine-race span. NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip set a one-of-a-kind mark – winning five straight races from 1981-1983. He actually won five of six. The late Tim Richmond was the only driver to steal one away during that particular Waltrip hot streak, winning in Spring, 1984 only to have “DW” return to Victory Lane that October.

And as he does at so many venues, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Richard Petty holds the win record at North Wilkesboro Speedway – hoisting 15 trophies; the first in 1962 and the last in 1981.

Gordon’s win in the final NASCAR Cup Series race at North Wilkesboro Speedway was indicative of the greatness of that era as well – a race decided by NASCAR Hall of Famers or newly-nominated candidates. Gordon took the checkered flag by 1.73-seconds over the late Dale Earnhardt. Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Terry Labonte rounded out the top five that day. The win padded Gordon’s championship lead to 111 points over Labonte and 182 on Earnhardt. And Gordon went on to hoist the second of four NASCAR Cup Series championship trophies later that Fall.

This week’s race certainly has a highly-motivated entry list as well including this year’s Daytona 500 winner and virtual Homestead race winner Denny Hamlin. Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch will compete alongside former Cup champions Kevin Harvick and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte.

Timmy Hill, who has earned a lot of recognition for his iRacing prowess is eager to finish the series on a high note before the NASCAR Cup Series schedule resumes at Darlington Raceway next weekend.

Hill has a victory (at virtual Texas) and five top-three finishes in the series’ six iRacing events and expects this week’s race to be as competitive as ever – despite the newness of the venue to so many. Other than Gordon, none of this week’s drivers have competed in a NASCAR Cup Series race at the track.

“I have never been there in real life or on iRacing,” Hill said Wednesday of the track. “So I’ve yet to turn laps on it.

“They [iRacing] just released it to the drivers who are participating this weekend. I was just tied up yesterday. I might get on this evening to run a few laps, maybe some tomorrow. It’s fair game.”

This entry list and classic locale certainly seems like a fitting back-drop to wave the checkered flag on the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series and ready the green flag for on-track racing at Darlington. Hill and three-time winner Byron have certainly claimed a large and hard-earned share of the spotlight and he sees that as a welcome by-product as he prepares to climb into his real time No. 66 Motorsports Business Management Toyota.

“I think it’s definitely a confidence booster,” Hill said of his eNASCAR iRacing run during the downtime. “It gives you experience, makes yourself happy, motivated and also makes your team happy. I know speaking personally, our team MBM, they’re ecstatic that we have gotten this much publicity.

“Everybody’s talking about the success we had. Even though I’m the one driving the car, I feel like we all share the success together. I couldn’t be more thankful. We’re going into Darlington geared up. Everyone’s ecstatic, happy to go. We’re all ready to get back to racing.”

Hill will certainly need to use the enthusiastic boost this weekend. The third place finisher last week, he and race runner-up Christopher Bell will be starting at the rear of Saturday’s grid. The race will be 160-laps with one ‘reset’. Cautions will be called manually. There will be three attempts at a Green-White-Checkered finish if necessary. And the top-10 qualifiers will be inverted at race start. Qualifying will take place at 2:50 p.m. – just before the 3 p.m. telecast start.

The popular Friday Night Thunder will take place at another popular NASCAR short track, virtual Martinsville Speedway. The race – featuring the best of NASCAR’s Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series – will be 125 laps with a 30-car field. Four 10-lap heat races set the first 24 spots on the grid and a 15-lap last chance qualifier will fill the remaining six positions. The main event is at 8 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on or on NASCAR’s YouTube channel.

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