Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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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.”

NASCAR’s Pro Invitational iRacing Series continues Sunday

Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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The eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series will continue Sunday with drivers racing at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway.

The race will be at 1 p.m. ET and will be simulcast on the FOX broadcast network, FS1 and the Fox Sports App. Races will be available in Canada through FOX Sports Racing.

Denny Hamlin won last weekend’s inaugural event at Homestead-Miami Speedway, passing Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap to win. Timmy Hill was third, Chase Briscoe fourth and Garrett Smithley was fifth after starting on the pole. Fox Sports confirmed that last weekend’s race on FS1 drew 903,000 viewers.

 

 

Amid iRacing spotlight, Timmy Hill ‘can’t stop’ working on real race team

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Exactly one year ago today, Timmy Hill debuted his own Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series team at Martinsville Speedway.

After competing in NASCAR at a national level since the day after he turned 18 in 2011, the Maryland native sought a little more “certainty” and  “exposure” for a career that’s been defined by racing underfunded equipment.

“Being a NASCAR owner was never a big dream of mine to do,” Hill told NBC Sports on Monday. “I just wanted to be a driver, I want to be the man who drives the cars. But this sport, there’s no certainty, at least for me and my career, there hasn’t been. I’ve been fortunate enough to where I’ve driven for other family teams.”

Added Hill: “This is a better way to control your own destiny by just doing it yourself.”

One year after his No. 56 Chevrolet finished 21st at Martinsville, Hill’s getting the most exposure of his career following a race.

But nobody could have predicted it would come as a result of a nationally televised iRacing event.

On Monday, the 27-year-old driver was scheduled for seven interviews with at least three more awaiting on Tuesday. All because he finished third in Sunday’s NASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series exhibition race, essentially the only brand new sporting event in the last week amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Held on a digital Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hill, who has been competing on iRacing for just over a decade, took on NASCAR All-Stars Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and others.

While some of the more well known drivers participated via expensive and fancy iRacing “rigs,” Hill’s setup reflected how he’s competed against powerhouse teams in the real world.

He sat at a desk he estimates he bought for $75 on Black Friday one year, the same desk he does his team’s business at. and uses a steering wheel he bought 12 years ago for $300.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. races Timmy Hill (66) during the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series on a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The 100-lap race started sloppy with multiple wrecks before it calmed down for a long green-flag run at the end, which saw Hamlin win over Earnhardt, Hill, Chase Briscoe and Garrett Smithley.

“I think some of these guys took for granted how much work and effort you still have put in to be competitive,” Hill said. “I could tell you just from watching (practice) what these guys would do … Bobby Labonte, I saw he ran several hundred laps of practice just in one day. Denny and different ones, they took it seriously and I really appreciate that, because I think the guys who did take it seriously, it really showed and they put on a good race.

“The guys who didn’t take it seriously, took it for granted and thought it would be easy. I think they were kind of surprised and shocked and taken off guard … You could see the different levels of experience in yesterday’s race … I think going forward to next weekend’s race, I think these guys will probably be practicing quite a bit more.”

This wasn’t the first time this year Hill has finished in the top five of a major racing event.

In February, Hill placed third in the Xfinity Series season-opener at Daytona, earning his second top five across 317 NASCAR national series starts.

“I think it’s (Daytona) probably my favorite weekend I’ve ever had in racing,” said Hill, who also qualified for his first Daytona 500. But even with the “big hype” around that weekend, Hill said “I’ve gotten more media requests, interview requests from (Sunday’s) race than for anything else I’ve ever done.

“It’s very new. With everything that’s new, everybody would love to know more about it.”

The invitational series will continue this weekend on a digital Texas Motor Speedway, but on Monday Hill was hard at work prepping his Truck Series team for a return to the real track.

Hill, who lives in High Point, North Carolina, drove roughly 60 miles to Mooresville to get parts for his trucks, which he hopes he’ll get to run in 10 races this season while the truck is fielded full-time.

Due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hill’s gotten the exposure he was seeking in creating the team, but like the rest of the sport, there’s not much certainty about what comes next.

With him is his lone employee, crew chief Greg Ely.

“We can’t stop,” Hill said. “Between him and I, everything that you see that comes to the race track … it’s just done between he and I. I don’t think most people realize that. I’m very hands on … Even though we’re not racing we’re preparing for what could be a very busy summer depending on how things shake out. When that gets here it’s going to be very busy for us, it’s going to be very tough to do.

“So we’re trying to get as far ahead as possible. We basically have two mile-and-a-half trucks done, ready to go. Got one short track truck that’s done and ready to go. I don’t know what our next race is going to be, what style of race track, we haven’t heard yet. We don’t have time to figure that out once the season gets here, we have to be prepared as possible now to be able to be ready to go.”

Winners and losers from virtual Homestead

Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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WINNERS

Denny HamlinHe passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap to win the inaugural eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series in a rig he estimated cost $40,000 (it includes motion sensors) and drove barefoot (“I like feeling the pedals. With shoes, I just can’t do it.” he said).

Timmy Hill and Garrett SmithleyTwo drivers who often are overlooked on race weekends because they are with underfunded Cup teams. Both are excellent iRacers and showed their ability in Sunday’s race. Hill finished third. Smithley won the pole and finished fifth. Said Smithley: “Wow, that was fun, that was a lot of fun.”

Fans Sunday’s virtual race gave fans something to enjoy for a while on a Sunday afternoon.  

Alex Bowman and his dog Finn — Bowman finished sixth but was the most entertaining driver with his series of tweets during the event about his race and his dog Finn. A sampling:

LOSERS

Active Cup Champions — Many do not have as much experience on iRacing and it showed. Joey Logano had the best finish among the five current Cup champions in the race. He placed 15th. Brad Keselowski was 25th, Kyle Busch was 29th, Jimmie Johnson was 31st and Kurt Busch was 35th. Expect those results to improve.

Waiting Having to wait until the next eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race. 

 

 

What drivers said after iRacing race at virtual Homestead

Photo: NASCAR/iRacing
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Denny Hamlin — Winner: “First thing I did, I got out of the rig and I came up and watched the last six laps to kind of see what was going on. I can’t see everything when I’m sitting in the car, but certainly I was intrigued to see the last six laps and see what it looked like on TV. I thought it looked great. My first reaction 10 seconds in to watching it was like, I asked the people around me, I was like, ‘Do you believe this is not real.’ Like it looks so real. That part was really cool. … I wanted the bottom, and he was really, really smart to ‑‑ I mean, he didn’t win, but he was smart to kind of block the bottom there because the bottom lane at Homestead on iRacing just has tremendous more grip than what the lane I was running in, but I knew that the difference in the two lanes was about a tenth and a half to two tenths, and I thought my tires were about three tenths better.  So I thought as long as I got beside him, I was going to be able to complete it, even though he was in the preferred groove.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Finished 2nd: “A lot of fun. Finished second. Got beat by Denny Hamlin, not the first time that he’s beat me on sim racing. The guy is pretty good. … A lot of guys put in a lot of work to get better in just a really short period of time. Denny doesn’t really race a lot but worked really hard this week to be able to be real competitive and it showed. A lot of the other guys did the same thing. … We took tires with 30 laps to and Denny took tires with about 20 laps to go and I think that was certainly a big advantage for him. We were racing really hard up front, too, burning our stuff up. I didn’t expect Denny to get up there and he did. Went to the bottom because if I go to the top he can pass me a whole lot easier. Plus, he wanted to, he could take the whole lane and knock me out of the way and I don’t even finish in the top five.”

Timmy Hill Finished 3rd“It was a really fun race. The top five did an excellent job all day long. I want to say thank you to NASCAR and iRacing for putting on this show. Today was a lot of fun. I did the best I could saving my tires at the end. We finally had our longest run of the day, 20 laps to the end. Didn’t take tires there and got beat. … I hope we get to do something like this again. These guys did a fantastic job with putting this race on. A lot of drivers put in a lot of time practicing.”

Chase Briscoe Finished 4th: “It was fun to get to do some type of racing, especially with the Cup guys and some others that I don’t get to race against a lot. Hopefully, it was a way for the fans to escape from everything that is going on and enjoy some good racing.”

Garrett Smithley Finished 5th: “Wow, that was fun, that was a lot of fun. I hope you guys enjoyed that. Cool deal. Started pole, finished fifth, led some laps. It was a good day. … It was a good day for the sim racing community. Cool to have some fun on these uncertain times but making the best of it. Hopefully we can get to the real racetrack soon.”

Alex Bowman Finished 6th:Heard the top 5 failed tech and I’ve been declared the official winner. I’d like to thank my sponsors, and most importantly my dog for taking over for a few laps.

Ryan Preece Finished 8th: My takeaways from today: iRacing is difficult. Easy to forget you’re on Live Video.”

Ty Majeski Finished 9th: “That was fun! P9 in the iRacing Pro Invitational. Got wrecked a couple of times and lost track position, had fun coming back up through the field!”

Erik Jones — Finished 10th: “Enjoyed myself more than I thought I would … Hope we get to do it again.”

Matt DiBenedetto — Finished 11th: My crew chief, aka myself, made a bad call at the end. I stayed out and then I was kind of a rolling roadblock on the older tires and fell to 11th.”

Landon Cassill — Finished 12th: “We had a good solid race. I got tore up at the beginning and had to use a reset. From that point it was just trying to get some green laps going. I let a lot of aggressive drivers by on restarts that ultimately ended up wrecking themselves.  That last restart with about 15 to go, there was a crash in front of me and I got through it, but I had to slow down enough that it gave like a two-second gap to the cars in front of me. Once I got going again, I just worked on my line, worked on kind of burning the right rear tire a little bit so I could wear the tires evenly and started picking them off very carefully and caught the field on the last lap.”

Parker Kligerman — Finished 13th: “Just stayed out on two tires there. Probably should have pitted with Denny, probably could have raced for the win but we didn’t have any more resets after getting involved in two wrecks there, one at the front and one trying to come up through the pack.”

Joey Logano — Finished 15th: “I don’t play on the reg and I struggled a bit throughout the race, but overall that was fun!”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 16th: “Guys, I let you down. Heck, I let myself down. I let my fans down. I had sponsors in the stands, praying for a good showing, and I end up wrecking our Mobil 1 Ford Mustang and using both redos, as a matter of fact. I think the real takeaway is, obviously, I need a lot more practice. With everything going on in the country right now, I hope the fans were satisfied and I hope they got their minds off of things for a little bit. We will be back. I will be better and, I promise you, if you get on iRacing and get online, you’re gonna see these boys, probably tonight, battling it out again.”

Ryan Truex — Finished 17th: “Not the day I wanted for the boys back at the shop. We will go back home and get to work on the cars and (come) back stronger.”

BOBBY LABONTE — Finished 18th:I didn’t use up all my credits for damage, so that was good. I hope it was awesome to watch. It was a lot of fun to do. We will get better at this, being this the first one. … That was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.”

Justin Allgaier — Finished 20th: “Had damage at the end that kept us from finishing higher up, but what a heck of a race and a killer finish!”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 21st: “That was interesting. heck of a race for the win that was cool to see. I definitely needed more than a night of practice for this #ProInvitationalSeries race. Had a lot of fun learning the sim world with @iRacing . We finished 21st with our @kroger chevy by missing all the wrecks.”

Austin Cindric — Finished 22nd: “Last 10 laps was watching the TV more than track! Looked like a great show by the end. Fun to do something new.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 23rd: “That was fun.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 25th: I had a lot of fun, wrecked a lot. Congrats to Denny Hamlin. Great race for him. Drove to the front and won it, which is pretty cool with new tires. I tried to pit for new tires and be on the same strategy and got wrecked but that’s part of it. Hope you guys enjoyed.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 27th: “I didn’t do very well. We got up to the top 10. … We got some work to do. I’m going to practice this week for the next one. Hopefully this ties us over until we get to the real race track because I’m ready to go really racing. Thank you guys for all following it.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 29th: “We obviously didn’t qualify very good so we were kind of mired in the back. Guys were crashing and wrecking out and we were kind of moving our way up to the front. Restarted, I think 16th one time and was making up some positions and getting closer to the front and felt like we had a pretty good long-run speed that was going there, we were picking a couple of guys off and then a crash happened on the frontstretch … nowhere to go.”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 31st: “Not a great showing. I’m going to take all the responsibility. I’ve not spent a lot of time in iRacing or really racing at all on sims. So I’m learning my way through that. Lots of things to learn within the race. I didn’t even have a spotter, which seemed to be a problem a couple of times with wrecks, race format, just a lot of race details.”

Anthony Alfredo — Finished 32nd: “I wish we didn’t have so many cautions, and I felt like I got caught up in just about every single one.  We used up both of our fast repairs, you were allowed two, by like 10 laps in. I was super cautious after that and made it all the way to the end and then I pitted with Denny Hamlin there from the top five, so we were on the same strategy and we were coming through the field and we got wrecked going into Turn 1 and I was out of fast repairs so couldn’t do anything.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 33rd: “Well that didn’t really work out. Hope everyone enjoyed watching though!”

William Byron — Finished 34th: “Really hope we continue doing this. I thought it was a lot of fun!

Kurt Busch — Finished 35th: What an experience. … Huge shoutout to David Gravel for letting me borrow his sim. I owe ya bro!”