Denny Hamlin, racing on the actual Homestead-Miami Speedway oval in 2018, won Sunday's IRacing event on the virtual Homestead track. (Photo: Lynne Sladky, AP)
For sports fans who've gone nearly two weeks without any live events, Fox Sports 1 offered an attractive alternative to Sunday's postponed NASCAR Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But instead of actual cars trading paint in close quarters around the 1.5-mile oval, the drivers — including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer Alex Bowman and Joey Logano — practiced proper social distancing as they competed from their own home video consoles in a virtual 100-lap race.
"We know, this is not real racing," play-by-play announcer Mike Joy told the FS1 audience. "But it's not a video game either — iRacing is a very sophisticated simulation that real race drivers as well as armchair racers use and compete against each other."
Morning warm up @[email protected]/i5mOqv4RoV
Coverage of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series was structured just like the network's regular NASCAR broadcast — from a pre-race prayer (from Motor Racing Outreach president Billy Mauldin) and national anthem (Curb Records artist Dylan Scott) to the engine-roaring "Crank It Up" feature.
Once the green flag dropped, however, an all-out video game mentality prevailed as the veteran gamers and professional drivers started jockeying for track position.
Crashes and caution flags were hard to avoid — especially with the iRacing rule that each car can have its damage reset twice during the race to like-new condition.
As a result, there were few long runs in between the multiple caution periods.
Kurt Busch triggers a big crash during Sunday’s @iRacing event. 😳 pic.twitter.com/gVPhCiifqE
Fans enthusiastically followed along on Twitter, and some of the drivers themselves got involved with the discussion on social media.
The drivers completed their laps around the virtual track lined with actual sponsor billboards and the packed grandstands gave a collective roar when perennial fan favorite Earnhardt took the lead near the race's midpoint.
All the while, the broadcast shifted from camera shots of the leaders to an overhead view to a first-person look from the driver's seat.
"Where I'm blown away right now (is) when I look at the steering from Chase Elliott and I hear the throttle. It is so realistic," FS1 analyst and four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff Gordon marveled. "When I run a race at Homestead that's exactly what it felt like."
It didn't hurt that NASCAR fans ended up getting exactly the kind of finish they would have wanted.
DALE EARNHARDT JR. LEADS LATE! #ProInvitationalSeriespic.twitter.com/sUiDzl4JQr
After a late caution, Earnhardt and Hamlin held the top two spots and battled back and forth for the lead over the final three laps — with the two colliding just before the start/finish line and Hamlin prevailing.
RETWEET TO CONGRATULATE DENNY HAMLIN ON HIS #ProInvitationalSeries WIN!!! pic.twitter.com/PU5v4O6PaK
"It's always fun when you win, but regardless, I mean, it's just — it was a great event," Hamlin told the media on a post-race conference call.
Hamlin, who revealed he drove his No. 11 Toyota barefoot, pledged to donate $5,000 to families in the Homestead-Miami area affected by the coronavirus outbreak if he won. Fox Sports and NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick said afterwards they would match that amount.
"For the community, the racing community, the NASCAR drivers to come together and put 20-something drivers on the racetrack with such short notice," Hamlin said, "and for it all to come together and have a great finish, I think it was definitely a success."
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