The first points-paying races of the 2020 NASCAR season won’t take place until this weekend, but for the top eNASCAR racers, the events that matter are very much underway.
It’s already produced some thrills too, as the opening event of the 2020 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series ended in a photo finish while much of the field got tangled up in a wild wreck coming across the finish line.
Let’s tap the brakes for just a second here. We haven’t traditionally covered NASCAR esports regularly here at Frontstretch, but we’re giving it a shot this season, and hopefully for many more to come. Not only has the popularity of iRacing Series and Heat Pro League continued to blossom, but the on-track action can be as exciting as anything on a physical track. It’s true that sim racers don’t stare down danger and put their bodies through hell to claim their trophies — nor is there as much of a team element to virtual racing — but their dedication and skill is still easy to admire, and their stories can often be just as compelling.
Plus, if it’s good enough for Dale Earnhardt Jr., winner of the very first race in the 2010 NASCAR iRacing Drivers world championship a decade ago, it’s good enough for us.
In other words, while eNASCAR may not be for everyone, we think it’s an important part of the overall NASCAR tapestry in the present and future. We’re pumped to be diving into it in more detail this season, and for those of you who are intrigued enough to join us, we’re dropping the green flag with this FAQ-style primer to get you set for 2020. Let’s start with a basic but important question.
So you mentioned eNASCAR, an iRacing Series and a Heat Pro League … those are all different things?
They are indeed, and it’s easy to see why there would be some confusion. The eNASCAR brand is one that NASCAR uses as an overall term for its esports initiatives or any virtual racing in which it has some involvement. For 2020, that means two major series, the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series and the eNASCAR Heat Pro League.
Both of them are essentially recreations of NASCAR in simulated form, racing on many of the same tracks and featuring fields full of accurate models of the stock cars fans cheer on each week in the real world.
OK, cool, so what are the big differences between the Coca-Cola iRacing Series and the Heat Pro League?
The short answer for the gamers out there is PC vs. console.
For everyone else, a more detailed explanation is in order. It’s more precise to call iRacing a platform rather than a game, because it’s a simulation that encompasses many different types of racing, from stock to dirt to open wheel. An iRacing membership allows people to take part in any of those kinds of racing on their computers, but the competitors in the Coca-Cola iRacing Series are pros, as they are vying for $300,000 in total prize money this season, with an eye-popping $100,000 going to the series champion.
In contrast, the Heat Pro League plays out on the NASCAR Heat video game franchise (currently using NASCAR Heat 4, which released last fall) on PlayStation and Xbox video game consoles. That makes the barrier to entry a lot lower, because while it doesn’t take a bleeding-edge computer to run iRacing software, it’s still cheaper to pick up a gaming console. It’s also hypothetically easier to make it into the Heat Pro League field, because for its second season, the league is holding qualification events open to anyone, with the best racers from the qualifying windows eligible to be drafted to eNHPL teams.
There are differences in season length and structure as well. The Coca-Cola iRacing Series is all Cup cars and its slate of races more a marathon than a sprint. For 2020, the series has a 16-race regular season, all at different tracks except for two visits to Daytona International Speedway. Races are held every two weeks from February through early October. The four-week playoff starts on Oct. 8 on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL and ends with the champion crowned at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 1. Yes, that means it’s nearly as long as the actual NASCAR season.
The Heat Pro League schedule is shorter and much more compact. It has an interesting structure that splits 12 weekly regular season races into three segments of four races each, with the top PlayStation and Xbox racer from each segment automatically qualifying for the playoffs. A wild card race on Aug. 12 will add a fourth driver from each console, leaving eight competitors to duke it out for the championship on Aug. 27. The track lineup has yet to be revealed, but eNHPL racers will have to show their stuff in Cup and Xfinity cars as well as Trucks. A total of $200,000 is in the prize pool for 2020.
Is one series better than the other?
That really depends on your preference. It’s hard to argue against the idea that iRacing is more realistic, if for no other reason than the tech behind it is much more advanced. The NASCAR Heat video games have improved dramatically over the last few years, but they don’t compare to the tech behind iRacing’s simulations. There’s a reason why NASCAR drivers turn to them to beef up their driving skills instead of using a PlayStation or Xbox to do it.
The flip side is that the Heat Pro League has a bit more of that it-could-be-you-sense of attainability, particularly with the qualifying events and draft taking place this year. Some people who were not esports pros are going to likely be on the eNHPL teams, and that’s pretty cool in its own right.
Both series figure to have their own drama and storylines throughout the year, and there’s plenty of money up for grabs in each one as well.
Are real NASCAR teams involved in eNASCAR?
Very much so. The Race Team Alliance was instrumental in helping the Heat Pro League come together last year, and a number of NASCAR teams were involved in the inaugural season, including Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske. There hasn’t been as much information released so far in terms of which teams will be represented in 2020, but the RTA is definitely still in the mix.
The presence of NASCAR organizations in the Coca-Cola iRacing Series is even more pronounced. Among the 20 teams taking part in the 2020 season, six are directly affiliated with teams you already know: Joe Gibbs Racing, JR Motorsports, JTG Daugherty Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Wood Brothers Racing. Several drivers have also stepped up and formed their own teams, including Clint Bowyer, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and William Byron, as well as announcer and former crew chief Steve Letarte.
How can you watch eNASCAR races live?
Mostly by streaming them online. The Coca-Cola iRacing Series races are streamed on Twitch, YouTube, Facebook and at eNASCAR.com, which is exactly what it sounds like: a hub for all things eNASCAR. NBC Sports Network will broadcast six races this year after dipping its toe into virtual racing in 2019.
Similarly, Heat Pro League races were streamed last year on Twitch, Facebook and NASCAR.com, and figure to be found in those same places this season.
Of course, we’re hoping you’ll rely on Frontstretch to help keep you abreast of what’s going on in eNASCAR as well. We’re excited to have you on the ride with us.