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eNASCAR race draws record TV audience for eSports event

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Last weekend’s inaugural eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series event drew the largest TV audience for an eSports event.

The race, won by Denny Hamlin at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, attracted 903,000 viewers on FS1, according to Nielsen Sports. The race topped the previous record of 770,000 viewers for a Mortal Kombat event on the CW Network in 2016, said Manny Anekal, founder of The Next Level, a publication that covers the business of eSports.

The eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series will continue with drivers competing on a virtual Texas Motor Speedway at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.

Tim Clark, NASCAR senior vice president and chief digital officer, told NBC Sports that the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series plans to follow the schedule for where the series was to have raced that weekend. That means upcoming races at a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway, Talladega Superspeedway and Dover International Speedway. NASCAR has postponed all its races through May 3 at Dover because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clark said that there have been preliminary discussions about what to do Easter weekend since NASCAR does not have any races scheduled that weekend.

The viewership for last weekend’s virtual race compares to a broadcast of an actual Xfinity race. The Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway earlier this month drew 993,000 viewers on FS1.

Of course, these are extraordinary times with stay-at-home orders being issued in many states in hopes of combating the spread of COVID-19.

What stood out to eSports experts about the viewership of last weekend’s iRacing event was that it was numbers not seen from motorsports games even when streamed.

“Racing games have not had that buy in from the eSports community so this is really a big deal,” said Gabriela Richard, assistant professor of education at Penn State University and faculty advisor to the school’s eSports club.

Anekal was among those who viewed last weekend’s race.

“It was interesting,” he said. “It was fun to watch because you had real world drivers, which makes it more exciting. Because of that, I think it was just really exciting to watch. To be frank, in terms of graphics, there were times where you couldn’t tell … am I watching a race or am I watching a video game?”

Clark said that there was some consideration to running such a race the previous weekend after the races at Atlanta Motor Speedway were postponed but “we ultimately decided that was probably too aggressive, we didn’t feel confident enough in doing that.”

While pleased with the viewership after one weekend, Clark said there are some ideas being examined for this weekend’s race.

“We’ve done some outreach to drivers … and wanted to get their feedback on what we could do better and how we can help improve the broadcast as well,” Clark said.

What might fans see more of this weekend?

Clark noted more views of drivers during the event and audio communication.

He noted that some drivers provided that last weekend when they streamed themselves racing on Twitch.

“That’s a really good opportunity where you kind of create a little bit of something for everyone and where you can certainly tune into the broadcast to see everything, but you can also tune into some of those channels like Twitch that gives you an opportunity to maybe reach an audience that maybe isn’t watching on television,” he said.

As for the racing, Steve Myers, executive vice president and executive producer at iRacing, anticipates it will be better.

“People don’t realize how we threw a lot of those guys directly into the fire with this because some of them just haven’t been using the software or have never used the software,” Myers told NBC Sports. “So to ask some of these guys to get up to be confident in driving a virtual stock car and in Jimmie Johnson’s case, an hour, he got an hour of practice before that race. I think that’s going to be the way it continues to improve the product.

“We had 10 or 11 cautions in that race. My goal for this next one would be to get that down to five or six. I think from that aspect, it’s going to be even more entertaining than it was last week.

“That last 10 laps of that race, watching (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) get past (Garrett) Smithley and Timmy Hill, and Denny Hamlin doing the same thing and getting past Dale on the last lap, the last corner, if we can recapture the excitement of those 10 laps over 100 laps or 125 laps, I think that by itself is just going to create a more entertaining product. The more that people see it and more that people buy into the fact of, ‘Hey I’m going to suspend belief for two hours and just enjoy watching racing,’ I think from that aspect it will grow.”

eNASCAR Pro Invitational Qualifier to be streamed online

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The qualifying race for Sunday’s eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series event at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway will be streamed on enascar.com/live, NASCAR announced.

The qualifier features Xfinity, Truck and regional series drivers looking to advance to the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race that will be at 1 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox, FS1 and the Fox Sports App. At this time, four drivers from the qualifier will advance. That number could change depending on any late additions or drops to the race featuring Cup drivers.

MORE: Roush, Greg Biffle reunite for eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race

MORE: North Wilkesboro to make its comeback on iRacing 

MORE: eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series reminds Clint Bowyer of being a rookie

The qualifier is scheduled to take place at 11:02 a.m. ET and have 34 drivers battling for those four transfer spots.

The qualifier will be 30 laps at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway. The race will have no cautions.

Practice begins at 10:30 a.m. ET. Qualifying begins at 10:55 a.m., lasting five minutes, followed by the race.

Last week, six drivers advanced from the qualifier to the main event. They were: Anthony Alfredo, Justin Allgaier, Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Ty Majeski and Ryan Truex.

Drivers scheduled to compete in Sunday’s qualifier at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway are (with car number):

02 – Spencer Boyd

7 – Justin Allgaier

08 – Jeb Burton

15 – Brennan Poole

16 – Justin Haley

22 – Austin Cindric

23 – Sam Mayer

26 – Tyler Ankrum

27 – Ruben Garcia

29  – Kaz Grala

29a – Trevor Bayne

33 – Anthony Alfredo

35 – Todd Gilliland

36 – Jesse Iwuji

40 – Ryan Truex

45 – Ty Majeski

46 – Chandler Smith

50 – Jeffrey Earnhardt

52 – Stewart Friesen

53 – Joey Gase

54 – Kyle Weatherman

63 – Scott Stenzel

68 – Brandon Brown

74 – Sheldon Creed

78 – Ryan Ellis

80 – Joe Graf Jr.

81 – Christian Eckes

90 – Alex Labbe

93 – Myatt Snider

98 – Chase Briscoe

99 – Harrison Burton

TBD – Derek Kraus

TBD – Drew Dollar

TBD – JJ Yeley

March 28 in NASCAR history: Texas Terry Labonte gets a home win

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Terry Labonte’s last two Cup Series wins were anything but forgettable.

The last one, in 2003, came in the Southern 500. That was the same race he earned his first Cup win in way back in 1980.

But four years earlier, the two-time champion got a home win.

A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, the driver nicknamed “Texas Terry” claimed a victory in the 1999 race at Texas Motor Speedway. It was just the third Cup race held at the facility after it opened in 1997.

Labonte started fourth and would lead 124 of 334 laps around the 1.5-mile track, including the final 12 after he passed Dale Jarrett on the outside going into Turn 1 for the lead.

Jarrett wouldn’t get a chance to fight for the lead again. With four laps to go, Jimmy Spencer crashed on the frontstretch to bring out the caution. Labonte took the checkered and yellow flags together for his 21st Cup win.

“We picked places to go test this year and I said ‘I want to go here cause this is a race I want to win,” Labonte told CBS. “Besides Daytona, coming here to Texas is awesome.”

Making the day even better for the Labonte family was Terry’s younger brother, Bobby, placing third.

Also on this day:

1954: The premier series held two races on different sides of the country. Dick Rathmann won a 125-mile race at Oakland Speedway in California after starting last. In Georgia, Al Keller won his first career race at Savannah’s Oglethorpe Speedway.

1982: Sam Ard claimed his first career Xfinity Series win in a race at Martinsville Speedway. Ard would go on to win 22 Xfinity races and the championships in 1983 and 1984.

1992: Robert Pressley passed Harry Gant on the last lap to win the Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.

1993: Dale Earnhardt came back from a lap down to win at Darlington Raceway. It was his first win since the Coca-Cola 600 10 months earlier. Alan Kulwicki finished sixth in what would be his last race before his death in a plane crash on April 1.

2004: Kurt Busch won at Bristol for his third consecutive victory on the half-mile track.

Roush, Biffle reunite for eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race

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After four years, Roush Fenway Racing and Greg Biffle are getting the band back together … digitally.

Roush Fenway Racing announced its former driver will compete in Sunday’s eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series event on a digital Texas Motor Speedway.

Like he did in the Cup Series from 2003-2016, Biffle will pilot a No. 16 Ford in the race (1 p.m. ET on Fox and FS1).

“How exciting is it to get back behind the wheel of the No. 16,” Biffle said in a press release. “I watched the iRace last week on TV and I was really impressed with the overall quality of the broadcast and the racing. It was just a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to being a part of the show this weekend.

“We are running a really cool Castrol scheme on the car. I think it’s going to show up really well. My plan is to log a ton of practice time leading up to the race, so hopefully we can have a strong showing and you’ll see a lot of the Castrol green and red on the broadcast.”

This will be Biffle’s iRacing event debut.

After parting ways with Roush Fenway Racing after the 2016 season, Biffle returned to NASCAR last year for a one-off Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway with Kyle Busch Motorsports, which he won.

NASCAR teams impacted by North Carolina stay at home order

Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP
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North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced a stay at home order for the entire state of North Carolina, beginning at 5 p.m. ET Monday because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The order is for 30 days.

The move impacts all NASCAR teams based in North Carolina.

“These are tough directives, but I need you to take them seriously,” Gov. Cooper said in afternoon news briefing.

MORE: N.C. Governor enlists Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson for COVID-19 PSA

MORE: North Carolina stay at home order

The order bans gatherings of more than 10 people and directs everyone to stay at least six feet away from each other. The order requires all residents to stay at home except for essential activities. The order states: “non-essential business and operations must cease.”

The order also states that among the definitions for an essential business and operation is “Businesses that meet Social Distancing Requirements. Businesses, not-for-profit organizations or educational institutions that conduct operations while maintaining Social Distancing Requirements:

a. Between and among its employees; and

b. Between and among employees and customers except at the point of sale or purchase.”

Mecklenburg County and Cabarrus County, which are home to such race teams as Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing, were already under a stay at home order through April 16.

By the end of the week, more than 20 states will have issued stay at home orders, including California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Ohio.