Race fans were the winners in the NASCAR virtual race on Sunday

In a time when NASCAR wanted to deliver to its fans something that would make them smile, it accomplished that goal Sunday with its virtual race.

The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational event Sunday at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway saw a lot of crashes – to be expected, considering several drivers had limited experience in the simulated racing game – and an exciting finish, as Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. battled, with Hamlin emerging victorious. No word if the fans watching on FS1 or the audience booed Hamlin for the move to beat the sport’s most popular retired driver, but the fans ended up the winners.

“It’s a success no matter what,” Hamlin said. “People are talking about it.

“If we got five new fans that were just sitting at home watching TV today that thought it was exciting and is 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. … If you made positive gains in your audience, whether it be one person or 1,000, it’s a good thing.”

Much like other esports, iRacing has its own professional gamers. NASCAR has two leagues, one through the comprehensive simulation iRacing game and another, run by the Race Team Alliance, for the console-based NASCAR Heat game. Drivers and teams are among the team owners in those series, and they hire drivers to compete.

This race Sunday wasn’t meant to replace the pros. It was meant to excite fans who want to watch the drivers who typically race on Sunday.

Here is a sign of why it was successful: Garrett Smithley was streaming his in-car on his Twitch account and he had nearly 4,000 viewers, according to the viewership number posted. His previous largest viewership numbers was in practice races the day prior and it was 350 viewers.

Smithley is one of the drivers people wanted to see because he primarily drives for underfunded teams in the NASCAR Xfinity and the NASCAR Cup Series. But he has significant iRacing experience, so to see him win the pole, lead, and run well was not a surprise to those who watch these simulation races regularly.

He also knew he was stuck with what he got at the end, running on older tires, and was passed with about 15 laps to go.

“If it was a 10-lap run, we would have won the race,” said Smithley, who finished fifth. “For me, I wanted to run top-10, I wanted to show some speed, and I wanted to have fun and put on a good show.

“We absolutely exceeded all my expectations. I never thought I would get the pole. I never thought I would lead laps like that.”

Sure, there were moments you would never see during a normal Cup race with actual race cars. Drivers were tweeting during the event. Hamlin posted a video of his daughter bringing him a soda that she had dropped on the way to him – and nearly exploded as he opened the cap.

Alex Bowman tweeted about needing to use the restroom and blaming his dog for a wreck. This might have been one of the few times the Busch brothers were involved in the same wreck and could laugh about it (assuming they did).

But laughing was part of the whole point. During the COVID-19 crisis that has people staying home and virtually all sports seasons suspended or canceled, a little levity and entertainment can go a long way. The race Sunday provided both, for fans and those involved in the sport, which hopes to have actual cars back on the race track competing May 9 at Martinsville Speedway.

“You know, this is a good time,” Hamlin said. “It’s Sunday afternoon. You would normally be watching in and tuning in and watching us at Homestead anyway, and what are we doing, we’re talking about a race at Homestead.”

OK, since we’re talking about the race, Mr. Hamlin, would you have actually done that move on Earnhardt Jr. in real life?

Hamlin insisted he would have done just that, and that Earnhardt was smart to block the lower groove.

“The bottom lane at Homestead on iRacing just has tremendously more grip than what the lane I was running in,” Hamlin said. “But I knew that the difference in the two lanes was about a tenth and a half to two tenths, and I thought my tires were about three tenths [of a second] better.

“So I thought as long as I got beside him, I was going to be able to complete it, even though he was in the preferred groove.”

Complete it he did. An exciting ending to an exciting day.