Wednesday night (March 24) marked the return of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series. After the successful run last year during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR and Fox decided to bring it back for another year with all of the Cup drivers for the 2021 season, plus a few special guests.
While the world was in a dark place in 2020, NASCAR was able to bring some light into the sports world with the Pro Invitational Series every Sunday. The magic returned in the form of a whole different animal Wednesday at the virtual dirt-covered Bristol Motor Speedway, where William Byron came home with the victory for the first Pro Invitational Series event of 2021, a precursor to Sunday’s (March 28) real dirt debut.
“I kept choking on the restarts and [Tyler] Reddick was real good on the top, but this was real fun,” Byron said. “Thanks to iRacing and NASCAR, I had a lot of fun tonight.”
Byron thought the track conditions were similar to what we could see on Sunday. Byron compared the race to Eldora Speedway in the Camping World Truck Series in the way the track rubbered in and wore out.
Timmy Hill was the driver who was the biggest headline coming into tonight’s event. Before Wednesday, he was not even permitted to run the race because of the charter rule and his MBM Motorsports No. 66 team not holding one. Only chartered teams were allowed to run, as well as provisionals awarded by Fox and iRacing to Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Brad Keselowski had already decided to give up his sim seat for the night to defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric, but Cindric proceeded to give it up to Hill, who wound up driving the virtual No. 2. One of iRacing’s most successful stars did not get the finish he wanted though at the end, coming home eighth.
The three heats would begin the night of racing, with Rick Ware Racing’s James Davison winning heat one, Byron winning heat two, and Garrett Smithley winning heat three. All three drivers started the race up front, hoping to avoid the chaos behind them. Track position is huge at any form of Bristol, so a good starting spot would definitely be pivotal towards a successful night.
With only 21 drivers making the feature event, we saw the best of the best of the sim world go at it for a full 70-lap main event. While we still saw our fair share of incidents, the virtual racing was still very fun to watch. Notables that did miss the feature included Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, and fan favorites Earnhardt and Bowyer.
Hamlin was one driver who had a very successful Pro Invitational Series run in 2020 with two wins and six top tens in seven races. He was a highlight tonight with his daughter, Taylor, being a reporter for FOX during the pre-race. As previously mentioned, he did not make the feature, but admitted before the race he did not have much experience or practice for the event. His only preparation other than his hour of practice? Hamlin stated, “I watched a bunch of 10-year-olds go around Millbridge (Speedway) last night.”
Drivers will not hit the track until this weekend, but with technology and the accuracy of these simulators, tonight was an excellent test for everyone involved. Many drivers use the simulator at their respected manufacturer’s headquarters to practice every week, and especially with the lack of practice and qualifying for 2021, it is extremely useful. This was something we did not have 10 to 15 years ago, which makes the technology that much more important.
The feature event was stacked with tons of talent on the simulator with some unusual suspects near the front such as Davison, Ryan Preece and Smithley. All had a successful night of racing, but Byron was able to get the best of everyone in the end. After taking the lead around lap 30, he did not look back. His experience on the sim showed and he took control of the race very easily once he was out front.
Dirt experts and favorites for Sunday’s race Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell each had a solid night of racing as well. They are expected to both be contenders in the real event on Sunday afternoon due to their dirt racing backgrounds in sprint cars, dirt midgets and late models just to name a few.
The only major incident of the feature occurred when Alex Bowman and Corey LaJoie wrecked off of turn two and then FOX in-race reporter for the night, Joey Logano, plowed into the wreck. Other than that, the main event was fairly clean, which was probably surprising to many.
The next Pro Invitational iRacing Series event will be at the virtual Talladega Superspeedway on April 21 with coverage at 7 p.m. ET on FS1.
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