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Parked by pandemic fears, NASCAR’s stars rev up for virtual iRacing series

Even current and former drivers say the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series offers virtual racers authentic representations of various tracks. (NASCAR)

Though NASCAR has idled since March 8 because of the coronavirus pandemic, three-time and defending Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin was up until 1:30 a.m. Friday trying to figure out how to pare a fraction of a second off his lap times.

And Dale Earnhardt Jr., who retired from full-time racing in 2017, has been back behind the wheel in his home’s computer room, getting up to speed once again with the layout of Homestead-Miami Speedway.

With stock-car racing’s elite series parked until at least May 9, Hamlin, Earnhardt and 32 fellow racers will strap in Sunday — at least, in a virtual sense — to compete in the inaugural eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series.

Ginned up by NASCAR and iRacing executives to feed fans’ appetite for stock-car racing and give drivers something to do amid the hiatus, the idea of a simulated racing series with top drivers got immediate buy-in.

Many NASCAR drivers, after all, raced on computers before getting their driver’s licenses. And many still do, even after establishing themselves in the Cup Series, whether for kicks or to hone their skills on less familiar tracks.

“It has the potential to really be fun over the next month or so,” said Hamlin, 39, in a telephone interview Friday. “Hopefully, we can do this on Sundays to keep some fans entertained. Along with that, it gives us something to practice on and keep from going stir-crazy.”

Though it’s not official, NASCAR’s hope is to stage weekly iRaces for as long as its Cup Series is on hold.

Fox, which holds the broadcast rights to the first half of NASCAR’s season, will air Sunday’s leadoff race at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway at the same time the actual race was to have started, 1:30 p.m., on Fox Sports 1. The action also can be streamed on the Fox Sports app.

The regular Fox broadcast team of Jeff Gordon and Mike Joy will call the action, with Larry McReynolds providing analysis. NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer will play dual roles, providing “in-car” commentary as he races an iRacing simulator in the Fox Studio in Charlotte.

“If this is entertaining and people enjoy it and it fills the gap, I think Fox will want to do more,” Earnhardt said in a telephone interview. “I’ll be sitting here racing in the middle of the house. I might not do every single one over the next several weeks, but there are a lot of other drivers who have similar rigs at home, like me.”

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Sunday’s field of 35 includes regular Cup Series front-runners such as two-time and defending champion Kyle Busch, 2018 champion Joey Logano, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski and 2016 rookie of the year Chase Elliott.

In NASCAR’s ideal world, the iRacing Invitational would prove more than a stopgap measure and, over the coming weeks, attract the younger audience NASCAR has been chasing since it ventured into esports more than a decade ago.

Stock-car racing’s TV ratings and attendance have declined steadily since the sport’s peak in 2005. Diversifying an aging, increasingly alienated fan base is essential to NASCAR’s survival.

Noted Tim Clark, NASCAR’s senior vice president and chief digital officer: “We’ve seen that not only the participants in esports but also the viewers have skewed significantly younger. Like other sports and media properties, we are looking to engage newer fans and younger fans.”

In that sense, there may be serendipity in a temporary shift to virtual racing.

“We have talked about this as making lemonade out of lemons,” Clark said. “If we can provide a distraction, a form of entertainment — that’s what we’re looking to do.”

Nearly every pro sport has an esports platform, from the NFL to Premier League soccer. On Friday, Monumental Sports Network and NBC Sports Washington announced that they will broadcast hour-long simulations of the Wizards’ and Capitals’ previously scheduled regular season games using NBA 2K20 and NHL 20, respectively.

But in the view of Earnhardt, an avid sports fan, nothing puts participants in the seat more authentically than iRacing, which was co-founded in 2004 by racing enthusiasts John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, and Dave Kaemmer.

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What makes iRacing so true-to-life, Earnhardt said, is the granular detail and precise rendering of NASCAR’s track, each of which is laser-scanned to capture every bump and imperfection in the asphalt, every detail of the grandstands and billboards to the drivers’ right and the pit-road entry and exit to their left.

“If you said, ‘Hey, I’ve got $1,500. What can I do with this that will give me a pretty good understanding of what a Cup race is like?’ this is what I would tell you to spend your money on,” Earnhardt said. “Obviously you’re not driving a real car. You don’t have the G-forces and don’t feel it in the seat of your pants. You totally go by visuals and the feedback you get from the steering wheel. And because you’re at home and can take a break, it’s a very comfortable experience — other than the mental stress of trying to be the best there is out there.”

That’s what Hamlin relishes.

As he was climbing the ranks on Virginia’s short tracks, hoping for a shot at racing in NASCAR full time, Hamlin made a name for himself as a hellacious “sim-racer.”

That’s how he and Earnhardt met more than 15 years ago.

“I’ve known him in a virtual sense for a very long time,” Earnhardt said of Hamlin, who’ll drive the familiar No. 11 FedEx Toyota in Sunday’s iRace. “He was always very fast and hard to beat.”

Earnhardt will compete in a new-look car bearing the No. 8 and advertising FilterTime, a home-delivery air-filter company he started with a buddy.

Sim racing was a huge part of Earnhardt’s adolescence, too. A third-generation stock-car racer, he started when he got his first computer at 16.

“My sister Kelley had to buy it because I didn’t have credit,” he recalled.

As the technology progressed, so did Earnhardt, who quickly found a community of friends online — “guys you’d want to hang out with,” as he described it. Later in life, he hired several to work for his own NASCAR team, JR Motorsports, including his former spotter, T.J. Majors, and late-model driver Josh Berry.

Now 45 and married with a toddler and another baby on the way, Earnhardt said he’s not as hardcore an iRacer as he was a decade ago, when he battled to win every race. These days, he might hop on for an hour or so in the middle of the night, if he can’t sleep. “Just trying to have a little fun,” he said.

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Hamlin claims he’s a bit rusty, too. That’s why he’s been working to regain his edge in his media room, where his iRacing setup shares space with a golf simulator, a big-screen TV for movies and a pool table.

Like Earnhardt, Hamlin has three adjacent screens that form a semicircle in front of his racing seat and steering wheel, showing the views out the windshield and to either side.

Being fast at iRacing isn’t simply a matter of talent, he explained. It’s steering the absolute, perfect line around the oval; hitting each visual marker for optimal braking points; and mastering a hundred tiny details by endless repetition.

Asked how much competitive fire he expects to bring to Sunday’s race, Hamlin said: “The same amount I would have on any Sunday! No doubt!”

His first goal, he said, is beating Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Busch.

But first, he believes, he has to qualify in the top 10.

“If you could somehow get in the top 10, you’d have a chance,” Hamlin said. “Outside of that, it’d be tough because there’s liable to be a lot of wrecks early on.”

Of course, wrecking this Sunday won’t hurt, nor will it tear up any car owners’ expensive equipment.

Only pride will be at stake. But for most racecar drivers, pride is worth wrecking over.