Denny Hamlin Won NASCAR’s iRacing Invitational As The Sport Embraces Virtual Racing Amid Coronavirus

With tracks officially closed and the need to social distance keeping crowds away, NASCAR was yet another sport put on pause by COVID-19 as the world buckles down and does its best to limit the spread of coronavirus. But unlike other sports like basketball or hockey, auto racing has a thriving digital equivalent that mirrors what athletes actually do on the ovals and road courses they call home.

Virtual racing has come a long way in recent years, and for more than a decade iRacing has grown as drivers hop in virtual rigs with car-quality steering wheels and impressive screen setups that mimic the real feel of racing on a track. For many NASCAR drivers, racing the virtual tracks is actually good practice for what they do in the actual cars. The eSports league iRacing, meanwhile, has races on Tuesday nights and has drawn an impressive online audience of its own, with races held at digital equivalents of real tracks like Daytona, Bristol and Miami Homestead.

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The latter was the track NASCAR was supposed to be at on Sunday, and instead the virtual Homestead played host to the Dixie Vodka 150, where 35 drivers from NASCAR’s three racing series hopped online to tackle Miami Homestead from the comfort of their own homes. It was an invitational that came together quickly and aired live on Fox Sports 1, with Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon on the call as they typically would be.

NASCAR pulled the plug on its schedule on March 13 just as drivers were getting ready to race at a fan-less Atlanta Motor Speedway, and with drivers locking down at home the sport quickly worked to put together an iRacing equivalent of the races now put on pause.

“What was fantastic was that there wasn’t one stakeholder or one person along the way who said ‘eh I’m not sure about this’ or ‘let’s slow down,'” Scott Warfield, managing director of eSports at NASCAR, told Uproxx Sports. “Everyone just kind of jumped in.”

The message across the board from drivers, the network and those at NASCAR was simple: with no sports people were desperate for entertainment, and NASCAR could provide it with a virtual race that wouldn’t be that difficult to pull off with existing technology they’ve used to power iRacing. In a market desperate for sports, it’s also a chance to show off the auto racing eSports league with a huge online following on Twitch and YouTube.

“This was gonna provide some relief to our millions of fans who are thirsting for a break in this minute-by-minute news cycle that is creating fear and uncertainty and anxiety,” Warfield said. “At least for 90 minutes on Sunday they’re gonna have something to smile about. Something to engage with.”

Warfield said iRacing’s platform gave them a “10-year head start” on executing a race like this with already-existing technology. All drivers needed was a gaming computer, steering wheel and pedals that are fairly common for racing gamers who eschew joysticks for something more like the real thing. In the days leading up to the race many drivers shared photos of their rigs, some of which were borrowed from other iRacing drivers that competed earlier in the week. For some, the rigs are more about comfort than screens.

Others, like Denny Hamlin, went all-out for the setup, including multiple screens that commentators compared to a space shuttle sitting just off what looks like his living room.

Despite the faithfully recreated race tracks and race conditions like tire wear, car damage and racing physics, there’s still a lot to get used to when it comes to iRacing. Expecting drivers to hop into a rig and shine right away is unrealistic, and the name of the game over the last few days for drivers was simple: practice.

“This is hard,” Warfield said on Friday, predicting that some drivers may struggle if they’re not prepared. “And you’ll be able to see on Sunday there are some guys that are more iRacing regulars that are going to be really good, there’s some others that dabble with it but have used to get ready.”

The race had all the elements of an ordinary NASCAR broadcast, complete with a national anthem by country artist Dylan Scott, who performed live from his own garage.

The Fox broadcast of the race featured commentary from its usual crew, including Jeff Gordon. There were even “pit row interviews” and a fan-favorite Crank It Up, which featured just the car sounds as they zoomed around the virtual track.

The driving was intense, and despite nothing really at stake other than pride, it got plenty competitive, something Warfield knew would make for great TV.

“This is going to help fill a void because it is that real and authentic,” he said. “And you have drivers who are our top athletes and superstars that are going to approach this like a real race because they’re competitive, they’re racers at their core. And you can’t replicate that. It’s going to come through.”

Jimmie Johnson got into trouble and caused “The Big One” on Sunday, and it was because of a problem that often pops up on the track at a real-life NASCAR race: he was on old tires and started to slow down, getting caught up by drivers trying to get by him that couldn’t avoid trouble.

Though fans saw some pretty significant crashes, it’s much easier to stay on the track after a virtual wreck. As explained on the broadcast, in iRacing cars get one chance to get to the pit and essentially get a new car, but in Sunday’s exhibition they got two resets to keep things going.

Sunday’s race certainly showed the value of experience as well, as Hamlin picked up the win thanks to some late moves. It’s no surprise, as Hamlin knows his way around the virtual track. You can watch his last six laps here as he out-dueled Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the win.

Hamlin even got to make a few jokes after the big win.

And yes, there were virtual burnouts to celebrate the W.

Next up on the virtual circuit? Texas.

NASCAR says the events will continue as long as drivers are interested, and it seems like it won’t be difficult to keep getting them to say yes right now. Whether it airs on Fox Sports 1 or will stream online is something they haven’t determined just yet, but the green flag will drop again on Sunday in Texas and beyond.

“As long as the competitors and the participants are having fun with it we’re going to do this every Sunday until we get back Cup racing,” Warfield said. “It’s just now a matter of where does it live, who’s participating and is it delivering the smiles and break in mind share that we’re hoping it does for our fans? And if that does, we’ll continue on.”