NASCAR Cup Series spotter Josh Williams crushed the virtual competition in Sunday afternoon’s iRacing Replacements 100, a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway hosted by the sim racing company and Podium eSports.
Williams, the spotter for Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney in NASCAR’s premier series, led most of the race en route to running away with the victory in his No. 12 Advance Auto Parts Ford Mustang. A wild first half with multiple cautions gave way to a relatively calm final 50 laps, as Williams led the rest of the way and put on a clinic.
After several bizarre, chaotic days of uncertainty and cancellations due to the spread of the coronavirus, just about every single sporting event was cancelled across the globe. This included the next two weeks of NASCAR at Atlanta and Homestead-Miami, along with this weekend’s IndyCar and Formula 1 season openers.
iRacing and Podium eSports announced the Replacements 100 Saturday afternoon (Mar. 14) and it became a major draw for fans, with more than 23,000 viewers tuning into the Twitch stream when the checkered flag flew. The field included 15 drivers from NASCAR’s three premier series running alongside spotters, NASCAR team employees and other iRacers.
Notable names included former Cup Series driver and current NBC Sports broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr., along with Cup drivers William Byron, Bubba Wallace, Garrett Smithley and Alex Bowman. Others included Xfinity Series regulars Chase Briscoe, Justin Allgaier and Harrison Burton.
Byron won the pole for the race, piloting the No. 24 as he currently does for Hendrick Motorsports on the NASCAR circuit, but he lost it quickly as Williams moved him and took the lead before the field was frozen by the day’s first caution flag.
The Big One struck on Lap 15, when both Allgaier and Burton, among others, were involved in a crash on the backstretch. Earnhardt Jr. was caught up as well, making contact with a car and going head-on into the outside wall.
Three incidents marred the race less than 10 laps later, with iRacer Gary Sexton and Truck Series regular Ben Rhodes both caught up in separate accidents. Three NASCAR-affiliated racers were involved in a third crash — Allgaier spun, was hit by Briscoe and Cup Series spotter Kevin Hamlin and then flew through the air, causing significant damage to his No. 7.
On the restart, Parker Kligerman — former driver and current NBC Sports reporter — began closing in on Williams for the lead while Byron drifted back. Kligerman’s drive to the front would be derailed, though, when an equipment malfunction sent his No. 77 straight into the wall.
Haley and Wallace, among others, were involved in a wreck just before halfway, and Byron used the yellow to begin his comeback as he and Williams battled for almost five straight laps after the race resumed. They dueled again on lap 60, but Williams slammed the door for the final time and pulled away, leading the caution-free rest of the race en route to his win.
“It was tough,” Williams said in his post-race interview. “I was more set up, prepared to run the long runs, so I was trying to take care of my stuff a little bit. We never really got long runs in the first half of the race.”
“It was tricky,” he added, “especially with the restarts and with everybody getting big drafts off turn 2, you gotta really defend where you wanna be, so it was tricky to survive those restarts.
Byron, Steven Steffen, TJ Majors and Kligerman rounded out the top five, while Earnhardt Jr. rebounded from his struggles for an eighth-place finish. Smithley and Wallace finished seventh and ninth, respectively.
Former Chicago Bears offensive guard Kyle Long also entered the race, crossing the line 17th. Xfinity regulars Briscoe and Haley scored top-15 efforts, finishing 11th and 13th.
Majors, spotter for Joey Logano in the Cup Series, ran well all afternoon but couldn’t quite get to the lead. Fellow Cup spotter Hamlin had a number of struggles and came home 33rd.
Xfinity Series driver Noah Gragson never turned a lap after very early issues, finishing dead last in 36th.
“It’s awesome, man,” Williams said of the victory. “A lot of us sim race all the time, so it’s fun to put that on here with Podium eSports … I hope everybody enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun for me.”