CHARLOTTE – After having the in-person support of Michael Jordan for his last two NASCAR championship round appearances, Denny Hamlin will return the favor virtually to the NBA legend this year.
As a new owner in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, Hamlin has two cars and some prime real estate to display in the national online racing series.
“If you’ve got cars with no sponsors and you can put anything on them you want,” he said during the most recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast episode.
So he approached Jordan, who attended last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the second time in five years, about helping design the scheme for – naturally – his No. 23 car.
“I always thought it’d be really cool to have a Jumpman car,” Hamlin said, referring to the Nike logo that has been synonymous with the Air Jordan shoe line for three decades. “And so I contacted (Jordan) and said, ‘Hey, is this something you’d be interested in?’ He says, ‘I’ll have a design within three days.’ ”
“This is right during Christmastime. And literally a day later he’s sending me all kinds of these renderings that he had his people go out and do.”
Casey Kirwan, who finished 10th in the 2019 eNASCAR points standings with one victory, will drive the No. 23 Jumpman car for Denny Hamlin Racing when the 2020 season begins Feb. 11 with Daytona International Speedway. Zach Novak won the 2019 eNASCAR championship last October in a finale that was broadcast live on NASCAR America (six iRacing playoff races will be broadcast this year on NBCSN).
This year will feature 40 drivers among 20 teams, many of which are owned by established teams and personalities in the NASCAR industry, as iRacing enters its second season with professional racing teams.
Hamlin, William Byron and Kyle Larson are new iRacing team owners in 2020, along with Stewart-Haas Racing. They join a roster that already included teams owned by Clint Bowyer, Austin Dillon, Joe Gibbs Racing, JR Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Wood Brothers Racing and NASCAR on NBC analysts Jeff Burton, Parker Kligerman and Steve Letarte.
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) February 4, 2020
Though Byron’s progression from iRacing to the Cup Series has been hailed as one of the greatest success stories in virtual racing, Hamlin also has a strong background in online racing dating to its infancy. While winning in Late Models on short tracks around the Southeast in the early 2000s, Hamlin also was an iRacing stalwart who caught the eye of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who invited Hamlin to Daytona after competing against him online).
During his 2006 rookie season in Cup, Hamlin said it was a “huge benefit” to use iRacing as an introduction to tracks he hadn’t raced in real life.
“I was very good at iRacing back in the day; I sat on the pole and won some really big, prestigious races,” Hamlin said. “Now back then, there were like 5,000 people that raced online, and now there’s over a hundred thousand that do iRacing.”
NASCAR has put more marketing muscle behind iRacing as a result, hosting drivers for a full day of media promotions in Charlotte last month. During the visit, Hamlin invited more than a dozen iRacing drivers to his house for basketball and bowling before taking them to lunch.
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) January 10, 2020
It sparked a debate on NASCAR Twitter about whether iRacing drivers are deserving of attention commensurate with real-life stars.
Hamlin’s answer to critics of virtual racing’s legitimacy? “You’ve got to conform or die,” he said, noting he built friendships with iRacing contenders Ray Alfalla and Logan Clampitt by answering their questions about his races via direct messages on Twitter.
“They are honestly really good at what they do,” Hamlin said. “And hearing their stories (that) they actually never watched NASCAR until iRacing and now (they) watch NASCAR races every weekend. So it’s growing our sport. There is no question about it. Because where our sport has always had a challenge unlike other sports where you can go out in your backyard and simulate a game-winning shot that Michael Jordan made or a flop shot onto the green.
“That’s why it’s so hard for people to relate to our sport because they can’t simulate it. They’re not able to experience it in real life, and iRacing now gives them that platform to do it.”
During the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, Hamlin also discussed:
–How he came close to organizing a drivers union five years ago;
–The input that drivers had in NASCAR’s new short track rules for this season;
–How he outdueled Kyle Busch for the Daytona 500 victory last year;
–His outlook for the 2020 season.