THE VIRTUAL NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. –– When the NASCAR world stopped in March due to the COVID–19 pandemic, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series on FOX Sports was born to fill the sudden void, if only temporarily.
Denny Hamlin scored that first victory at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, side-by-side with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. crossing the line.
With the real world NASCAR racing resuming a week from Mother’s Day at the real Darlington Raceway, the virtual series was set to end after seven races.
Denny Hamlin bookended his virtual season on Saturday afternoon, taking the first official NASCAR Racing Series checkered flag at North Wilkesboro Speedway since the track was shuttered in 1996.
Hamlin booted Ross Chastain out of his way with just under ten laps to go, and held off virtual Texas Motor Speedway winner, Timmy Hill, to claim his second victory in the virtual series season.
“We’ve had a thing over the last few years of winning very, very important races,” Hamlin told the media post-race on the weekly teleconference. “The Daytona 500, the elimination race at Phoenix last year to get in the final four, then Daytona 500 this year, then the two virtual wins, the first one and the last one.
“Those are the two you probably want to win in those circumstances. Pretty awesome to be able to have success and be competitive and race for wins, whether it be in real life or virtual.”
In the seven races of the Pro Invitational Series, Hamlin won twice (Homestead-Miami and North Wilkesboro), William Byron won three times (Bristol, Richmond, and Dover), Timmy Hill collected a victory (Texas), and Alex Bowman also stole a win at Talladega.
The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series had been following what used to be the NASCAR Cup Series schedule before the pandemic his, but for the finale weekend, opted to only spend Friday night at Martinsville Speedway with the NASCAR Xfinity, NASCAR Gander Truck, ARCA, and NASCAR Touring Series drivers.
The Friday Night Thunder event whittled their field down to 30 drivers after four heat races and a last chance qualifier, and after the smoke cleared on the well-lit speedway, Ty Majeski finally took home a virtual trophy.
Saturday, however, would shake up the status quo, as the main event took their talents back in time, back to 1987, with a historically restored virtual venue in Wilkes County, North Carolina.
29 drivers accepted the invitation to compete with the current style NASCAR stock cars on a track that hasn’t seen real world action since 1996, when it was closed for good following the September 29th race in which Jeff Gordon was the winner.
Gordon climbed into the simulator for the second time on Saturday afternoon, wielding the paint scheme he drove to victory over 23 years ago, the famous DUPONT colors now with AXALTA emblazoning the hood and side panels.
Not unlike Talladega, Gordon’s other start in the virtual series, the No. 24 was a magnet many of the incidents, collecting 20 incident points through the event. The result, however, was much better this time around, as Gordon collected an 18th place finish overall.
Gordon wasn’t the only NASCAR legend in the field, as he was joined once again by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Bobby Labonte, who both have competed in all the races in the virtual season.
Gordon, Labonte and Earnhardt, Jr. were joined by many in a theme of throwback paint schemes, with Timmy Hill running a variant of the old Skoal Bandit car, the Richard Childress Racing duo of Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick throwing back to the Wrangler days, and a handful of others also running some classic paints.
Up front, the battle for the lead was one of the most intense of the entire virtual season.
Cole Custer started on the pole position after a 10-car invert, which placed the actual pole sitter, Parker Kligerman, back in 10th to start the day.
Ryan Preece showed strength early and often, leading a good portion of the early stints. Ross Chastain also showed his strength throughout the day, leading multiple times.
Christopher Bell led the most laps on the day, 61 total, but towards the end, got mired back in traffic playing a different strategy. Denny Hamlin was on the same strategy, but was able to cut through traffic with ease, and with just nine laps remaining, he found himself knocking on the door to take the lead.
Chastain had stayed out on older tires, so Hamlin had to get around him as soon as he could before the wear equalized.
A bump and run, similar to what Timmy Hill had done to William Byron at Texas Motor Speedway, moved Hamlin back into the top spot for good, as Chastain faltered back to ultimately finish in fourth. Hamlin held off Hill and Reddick to take the victory.
No monitor issues this week for @dennyhamlin. 😎
Retweet to congratulate the No. 11 on his virtual win at North Wilkesboro! pic.twitter.com/njGD7ApDO4
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 9, 2020
We just want to say thank you to everyone who has welcomed iRacing into their homes and tuned in these past weekends. We all do it for the love of Motorsports and we’re glad you share the same passion. 🏁 #ProInvitationalSeries pic.twitter.com/NncC1w0OZJ
— iRacing.com (@iRacing) May 9, 2020
🏁🏁🏁 Virtual victory lane was loud! pic.twitter.com/juJNJNeWsT
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) May 9, 2020
Jacob Seelman, SPEED SPORT
NORTH WILKESBORO 160 RESULTS:
Lead Changes: Seven among five 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.
Laps Led: Christopher Bell 61, Ryan Preece 32, Ross Chastain 31, Denny Hamlin 24, Cole Custer 12.
Hard Charger: 66-Timmy Hill (+23)
Caution Flags: Eight for 53 laps
Time of Race: One hour, eight minutes, 24.411 seconds
Average Speed: 87.711 mph
Busch Pole Award: 77-Parker Kligerman, 17.829 seconds (126.199 mph)
Fastest Lap: 8-Dale Earnhardt Jr., 17.927 seconds (125.509 mph)
PHOTO GALLERY (all pictures by Justin Melillo / TRE via iRacing.com):
Columnist / Reporter / Photographer / Webmaster for TheRacingExperts.com