NASCAR drivers looking forward to return to track after iRacing’s success

One to go.

The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series has taken the white flag, or at least it has in its current form.

With one race left next week that will feature the virtual debut of the long-since-closed North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series drivers and guests have had some fun and entertained fans with their weekly simulated racing over the last couple of months.

“I have used iRacing to train me on the mental side, which I think has really helped me,” said William Byron, who won for the third time in the last four virtual races as he took the checkered flag Sunday at virtual Dover Speedway. “I’m looking forward to carrying that confidence and that momentum over to the Cup car.”

Byron loves iRacing, but some of his driving brethren probably won’t shed too many tears after next week, and drivers will return their focus (if it ever left their focus) on getting into actual race cars and racing on an actual race track as the NASCAR Cup Series is set to return May 17 at Darlington Raceway.

“I can’t wait to get back in a real race car,” said Alex Bowman, winner of the race a week ago at virtual Talladega Superspeedway. “I think that’s something that is definitely important for me.

“The iRacing thing is great, and I think we’ve done a really good job entertaining the fans, but as far as it being actually driving a race car, it’s not, and we all want to get back in the real thing.”

While some of the drivers have used the platform for enjoyment or to learn things about certain tracks, others just did it to have fun or did it to appease sponsors while the NASCAR season has been suspended for nearly two months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With an average of more than 1 million viewers per race, some drivers probably introduced themselves to people who didn’t know much about them.

But it wouldn’t be surprising to see some of them not do much, if any, simulated racing again.

And that’s okay. This wasn’t meant as a permanent replacement for NASCAR racing. NASCAR already has its series with top sim drivers and those who are deep fans of this already were watching. Maybe it created more fans for them.

With four Cup races in 11 days from May 17-27 and likely more midweek races in the coming months as NASCAR tries to get through its revised 2020 schedule, don’t expect NASCAR drivers to be doing a bunch of iRacing.

Look at IndyCar, which ended its series Saturday with a finish that fans could call hilarious or embarrassing with several crashes on the final lap.

Conor Daly, who has competed in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, streamed himself playing video games before this. He had fun. But he’ll be ready to get back to racing, too.

“There are literally people on the internet like judging you as a driver because of what you are doing on a video game or sitting in my guest bedroom like in 90-degree temperatures because it’s a room and not a race car,” he said. “So I’m excited to get back to reality.”

NASCAR will take one more stab at virtual reality next week thanks to the “trip” to North Wilkesboro, a track that still has its proponents who think racing could return there but a facility that likely would need hundreds of millions of dollars of upgrades for NASCAR to even think about using it again for a national series event.

It will be a fitting end as NASCAR looks to its history before going to one of its oldest tracks, Darlington Raceway, for a race with actual cars.

But drivers, such as Byron, already have their eyes on their full-time jobs, and Byron said his focus this week will be Darlington and not North Wilkesboro – so that means he will be logging hours go-karting and testing on the Chevrolet simulator instead of as many hours in his gaming rig.

“Going to the karting track is something that’s big on our priority list,” Byron said. “That’s kind of why my iRacing structure this week might be a little different.”

Byron probably could never have too much virtual racing in his life, but he probably said Sunday what many drivers are thinking.

“I’m ready to get back to our normal racing here soon,” Byron said.