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denny hamlin iracing Twitter: Denny Hamlin
Twitter: Denny Hamlin

NASCAR, like virtually every other sport’s league, has been forced to seriously shift gears due to the coronavirus outbreak. With races being postponed through May 3, it certainly hasn’t been business as usual for the auto racing sanctioning body.

But, just because it isn’t business as usual, doesn’t mean there isn’t any business to speak of. Unlike most sports, NASCAR is in a unique position where drivers can still compete, thanks to an immersive simulation experience called iRacing. First launched in 2008, iRacing isn’t new, and a good chunk of NASCAR drivers regularly compete in iRacing events. That said, the sim racing video game has recently taken the place of regularly scheduled NASCAR Cup Series races, thanks to the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, a series that was put together via a partnership between NASCAR and iRacing.

Sure, it’s not the kind of stock car racing you might be used to, but any racing is better than no racing.

With NASCAR’s finest competing from the comfort of their own homes and fans getting to watch the action on live Fox Sports broadcasts, this latest iRacing craze is a classic example of making the best out of a bad situation.

Denny Hamlin Wins iRacing Pro Opener

On Sunday, March 22, at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, a barefoot Denny Hamlin narrowly beat out Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the Dixie Vodka 150, the inaugural race of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series.

Ahead of the race, Hamlin had promised to donate $100 per lap led plus $5,000 for winning the race to the NASCAR Foundation to assist Miami-area families affected by the COVID-19 virus. All told, the three-time Daytona 500 winner contributed $6,400 to the incredible cause.

“It’s always fun when you win, but regardless, I mean, it’s just — it was a great event,” said Hamlin, according to NASCAR.com. “For the community, the racing community, the NASCAR drivers to come together and put 20-something drivers on the racetrack with such short notice, everyone is buying up simulation rigs this week and last week getting ready for the event, and for it all to come together and have a great finish, I think it was definitely a success.”

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Hamlin, who racked up his 31st iRacing win Sunday, added, “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 into a NASCAR race or go to a NASCAR race because they got introduced to racing today by iRacing, it’s a success.

“There’s no number that makes it a success. If you made positive gains in your audience, whether it be one person or 1,000, it’s a good thing.”

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Called by the regular Fox Sports crew of Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds, the 100-lap Dixie Vodka 150 featured 35 racers representing the NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series, and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. Timmy Hill, Chase Briscoe, Garrett Smithley rounded out the top five, while seven-time Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson triggered a massive 10-car wreck, and ultimately finished 31st. He joined Anthoney Alfredo, Kyle Larson, William Byron, and Kurt Busch at the bottom of the pack.

As for second-place finisher and longtime iRacing competitor Dale Earnhardt Jr., he knew the virtual race was going to be a tough one.

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“I’ve raced (Hamlin) on here (iRacing) for two decades, I thought he’d be hard to beat,” Dale Jr. said.

“I was trying to get a good finish, trying to win the race and trying not to wreck anybody. So I think I probably gave Denny a little more room than I really wanted to, but I had to keep from crashing him or anybody else. We got together off of (Turn) 4. I thought I might have been able to get a photo finish at the line, but we got together in (Turn) 4 and I about wrecked there.”

“But it was a fun race. Denny had better tires and he was just really, really fast, but it was a good race.”

The next race in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series will go down at Texas Motor Speedway. Who do y’all think will take the W this time around?

WATCH: Remembering Dale Earnhardt’s 1st Cup Series Win

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