With NASCAR currently paused due to the coronavirus outbreak, almost everything going on with the sport is unprecedented. That includes Sunday’s inaugural race in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, won in thrilling fashion by Denny Hamlin as he slipped by Dale Earnhardt Jr. to claim the checkered flag.
By all accounts, it was well worth doing, with the race broadcast by FS1 and plenty of chatter about it on Twitter, where it was briefly the top trending topic. But in this brave new (temporary) world of real life drivers competing in virtual races, what defines success?
According to Hamlin, if it gets new eyeballs on stock car racing, it’s worth it.
“If we got five new fans that were just sitting at home watching TV today that thought it was exciting and are willing to tune in next week or willing to tune in to a NASCAR race — or go to a NASCAR race — because they got introduced to racing today by iRacing, it’s a success,” Hamlin said in a post-race conference call. “If you make positive gains in your audience, whether it be one person or 1,000, it’s a good thing.”
The Joe Gibbs Racing star also pointed out another benefit of the iRacing exhibition, which is that it gave drivers who don’t have the benefit of top notch real world equipment more time in the limelight. That includes the likes of Timmy Hill and Garrett Smithley, who both earned top-five finishes in the Dixie Vodka 150, ahead of Cup Series champions like Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson.
“I certainly think it’s good,” Hamlin said. “Guys with experience [in iRacing] are going to shine, especially early on in this type of racing.
“I think it’s great for those guys who normally you would not see up front. … It’s great that those guys were able to participate, and not only participate but challenge for the win. On a normal week, they’re thinking, ‘Well, how can I run 30th,’ right? It’s just a different beast.”
Of course, any momentum to be gained for NASCAR or its drivers will fade if the Pro Invitational Series turns out to be a one-shot deal. A lot of eyes in the sport will be watching to see if the Cup Series stars will want to give it another go — Hamlin thinks they will, though also predicts that not all the names will be the same from week to week — and if FOX wants to keep showing the races to replace the real world action they lack on Sundays.
For now, Hamlin is anxious to go back and review “all of it” to see how the race looked to fans watching at home. He’s already reviewed the thrilling final laps and believes they looked real enough to hook people for as long as real NASCAR races are on hold.
“It certainly keeps our sport relevant if we can keep it going,” he said. “As long as you have drivers willing to participate, you’re going to have a product that people are going to want to see. If you get that first step, then most likely you can keep this thing going.”