Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – For anyone watching last Sunday’s inaugural eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series event at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, it was obvious which drivers in the talented A-list field of NASCAR competitors were already comfortable, eager and racey in the new-age version of competition.
Denny Hamlin edged Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the win on the last lap – both of them top NASCAR competitors with decades of iRacing experience, too. Others such as NASCAR champions Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson were learning the virtual competition as they went. And some names – Timmy Hill and virtual Homestead pole-winner Garrett Smithley – who don’t normally challenge for NASCAR Cup Series wins proved what an extensive iRacing background can mean in this virtual competitive setting. They finished third and fifth, respectively.
All the storylines and intrigue have created a lot of buzz for this week’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 125 (1 p.m. ET, FOX, FS1, FOX Sports App) at virtual Texas Motor Speedway, where the competition level will be undoubtedly raised again.
For 22-year-old NASCAR Cup Series driver William Byron, iRacing isn’t just a familiar feel-good place. It was vital in advancing and shaping his real-world career. And the Hendrick Motorsports driver is absolutely one of the drivers whose talent and accomplished iRacing record has put a big virtual bullseye on his No. 24 car going forward.
One of the first things Hamlin said after his victory on Sunday was how big it was for him to beat Byron and the others who are largely considered the best at this form of competition. More than once Byron’s name has been raised as setting the bar for excellence.
“I appreciate that,’’ Byron said this week. “I just enjoy it [iRacing]. It’s always been something I’ve been passionate about. It really is how I got started in racing.
“It’s really cool to see the iRacing community now come together and these races are going on as much as they are. I’m pretty excited for it because I think it’s a good chance to shine.
“It’s fun to kind of see the different names in there and kind of be surprised by who’s really good and who’s maybe not as good or not as experienced on it. I think that as the races and leagues go on, it’s just going to get tighter and tighter as far as the fields go in competition.
“I’m just really excited to see where things go in the next couple weeks with it. I think Sunday will be an awesome race and I think a lot more action the more weeks go by.’’
It’s generally understood that these top drivers will practice more and be even better prepared with each eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series event. But for Byron, it’s not a crash course. He used iRacing as a sort of real-life homework opportunity to advance his motorsports career, ultimately earning chances to compete in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series fulltime in 2016, then earning the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship before landing the biggest opportunity of his career – his current job steering the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
With NASCAR’s competitive break as the country deals with the COVID-19 virus, Byron concedes he’s spending his days putting plenty of laps into his iRacing simulator. But he’d be doing that even if he weren’t participating in NASCAR’s popular new league.
“I’ve put in a lot of time,’’ Byron said. “For me, racing around people is the most important thing to learn. I think it’s important to make laps, but if you’re just making a bunch of laps by yourself it’s not really indicative of what the race is going to be like, so I think that’s what I try to do, really race every night and that’s how I try to learn.
“Typically, it works out pretty well, but there’s things you have to learn like the different intricacies of the set-up and stuff like that. With everyone having the same set-up it just comes down to how your race craft is and just learning the little tricks of qualifying and also pit road and all the little details just like you would in a real car.’’
Interestingly, Byron says that the other racers in this particular Pro Invitational Series race the same way virtually as they do in their real-world cars.
“I think really similar characteristics in terms of how people race, the way they think is very similar on iRacing so I think that’s really unique and cool to see the different mindsets and just fun to race all those guys and kinda see how they operate and think,’’ he said.
Several of those who don’t necessarily consider themselves iRacing experts have been turning in the practice time this week.
“It’s gonna be bigger and better than it’s ever been, we learned a lot,’’ Clint Bowyer said of the upcoming Texas iRace.
Byron, who started on the front row and led laps, ultimately finished 34th out of 35 drivers last week after being collected in a late-race accident at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway. He acknowledged there’s a lot of variables and dynamics that go into the race and recognized that even the most experienced can have their hopes dashed in a split second.
He feels that Hill and Smithley faring so well, however, is a nod to the opportunity that iRacing presents. While Byron and several others – including Hamlin and Earnhardt – have top-of-the-line simulators worth tens of thousands of dollars, Hill and Smithley competed at the same level with a more modest set-up. In their case, a steering wheel attached to a desk, pedals on the floor and a stick shift along with a single monitor to visually navigate the race.
“It’s definitely an equalizer,’’ Byron said. “Honestly, there really is no difference in the equipment you have to work with. Everyone, as long as you have a wheel and pedals and they are responsive and they work how they should and there’s no glitches, honestly you should be able to be competitive with anything.
“That’s what’s really cool. The equipment doesn’t really matter and everyone’s kind of going into an equal playing field.’’
That’s exactly the kind of formula that has made the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series a must-do for competitors and a must-see for fans, old and new alike. For Byron, it’s been a specific opportunity to shine as a highly-accomplished veteran of sorts.
“It’s great, honestly,’’ Byron said. “It’s just good to see all the passion around it and the support. I think it really shows where the sport is going that they could all pitch in and help during this time.
“It’s a tough time for the world in general and I think we can kind of bring a little bit of joy and passion to some race fans over this time and that’s a really cool thing. I think it’s really neat and I think it’s going to put on a great show again this Sunday.’’