CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The stands were packed, Jimmie Johnson caused several wrecks, Denny Hamlin raced barefoot and damaged cars were repaired with the push of a button — a few virtual signs that NASCAR backed quite an unreal race.
NASCAR eased off the brake in the real sports world brought to a sudden halt by the coronavirus and introduced the country to iRacing with some of the sports biggest stars. Hamlin, the three-time Daytona 500 winner, beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. off the final corner Sunday at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the bizarre spectacle.
“For the community, the racing community, the NASCAR drivers to come together and put drivers on the racetrack with such short notice, everyone is buying up simulation rigs this week and last week getting ready for the event, and for it all to come together and have a great finish, I think it was definitely a success,” Hamlin said.
"iRacing got involved and emailed everyone, said, 'Hey, this is what we're thinking about.' NASCAR got involved, television got involved and said they'd be interested. But no one really talked to the drivers about unifying and participating. It was all free will, and that's what's exciting is you had full-time Cup guys out there willing to spend their time doing this.”
It was Hamlin's 31st victory in iRacing, which is where he was first discovered by Earnhardt long before he made it to NASCAR. Hamlin was heavily involved in putting together Sunday's pretend race, which was broadcast live on Fox Sports 1 and called by its regular team of Mike Joy and Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon.
NASCAR has suspended racing until at least May 9, and with literally nothing else to do, series executives and iRacing put together the inaugural eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series in roughly one week. The first event was at Homestead, where NASCAR was supposed to be racing Sunday before COVID-19 brought sports to a halt.
This was a one-of-a-kind competition for most watching at home, and ended up with a familiar winner.
It could serve as a petri dish for other sports to try the whole gamer thing. The classic games aired across TV over the weekend will get old in a hurry, and networks are desperate for something fresh until sports resume.