At the age of 40, Clint Bowyer feels like kid again.
Or something close to it.
That’s the power of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series, which launched last weekend and continues Sunday on a digital Texas Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET on Fox and FS1).
“It reminds me of a rookie coming into the Cup Series,” Bowyer said Thursday on a media teleconference. “You’re up against guys who have been doing (iRacing) for years, decades, and you’re expected to jump right into the deep end and compete with them and run door-to-door with them and beat them. The pressure is on for all of us to gain that almighty seat time as much as we can.”
Last Sunday’s race on a digital Homestead-Miami Speedway featured a handful of full-time Cup drivers who had little to no experience on iRacing or experience with iRacing’s version of a Cup car. They went up against drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Timmy Hill who have years of experience on the platform.
“Man, the timing couldn’t have been any more right for a perfect storm situation,” Bowyer said. “Here we all are, just longing for some sports action, some competitive action that we can broadcast and show a fan and, boom, here it is in our lap. It was a great race last week at Homestead. I mean, you want to talk about a perfect storm, Dale Jr. taking the lead and Denny Hamlin passing him literally in the last corner of the race was just incredibly awesome.”
Bowyer praised iRacing for being “extremely realistic” compared to the real racing production that will be absent until at least May.
“The difference between all of this is with iRacing you’re using the same mechanics, the same forces, the same movements as you use in real life to make your car go fast and that is your hand-eye coordination, your feet,” Bowyer said. “You drive these things so much with the pedals, with the gas, the brake, the steering input. All of those inputs in your mind are the exact same thing and the same tools we use to put your car to the front of the field on any given Sunday.”
“That being said, the only sense that you don’t have in a simulator is the feel from the seat of your pants,” Bowyer observed. “We kind of call it the ‘butt dyno.’ You balance a race car kind of like if you put a plate on the end of an ink pen. That’s how you balance a race car. That thing wants to go on all four different axis’, whether it’s the right-front, left-front, right-rear, left-rear, you can feel all those things and that’s how you balance a car is through the seat of your pants. In iRacing, you don’t have that.
“All you have is your visuals, so once you have the hang of that and your mind finally catches on it’s kind of like riding a bike. It’s a struggle for a little while, but once you catch on to that and realize what’s going on with the movements of your car and the movements of the track and things like that – when to pick up the gas, your timing – once you get all that set it’s exactly like what we do in real life.”
After a messy start to the series’ premiere last Sunday, Bowyer expects to competition level to be up “across the board” this weekend with his fellow competitors getting more “seat time” to practice in their respective iRacing rigs.
“I think the best thing you can possibly do for any given sport is to do it,” Bowyer said. “There’s nothing that replaces seat time when you’re racing cars against your peers and the competition that we see at the Cup level. It was the same way when I raced dirt modifieds in the Midwest. The more you did it, the better you were. Trust me, these iRacing guys it’s no different.”
Ryan Blaney throws helmet into eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series
But Sunday Blaney will make his Invitational debut in the race held on a digital Texas Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET Fox and FS1).
“I’ve never been a big iRacing person for multiple reasons, but it just looked like it was a lot of fun,” Blaney said in a media release. “The thing that pushed me into making it want to happen was seeing how the fans enjoyed it. Social media was blowing up and people really enjoyed just watching some form of racing again, which is nice. I saw their support and their push for me to try to get in, so I was happy we were able to make it happen.”
Since Blaney has Internet connectivity issues where he lives in North Carolina, he’ll be getting some help from his spotter, Josh Williams. Blaney will take part in the race from the rig at Williams’ house.
Blaney put some practice time in on Monday to get accustomed to what iRacing has to offer.
“You want to win the race,” Blaney said. “Competitors are competitors no matter what they’re playing. You want to win, so that’s why I’m practicing on Josh’s rig a little bit during this week to try and get a feel for it. You don’t want to go in there not knowing anything and make yourself look silly.
“You want to have a shot at it, so you want to try to win the race, but it’s also about having fun and hoping you don’t wreck anybody. The stakes aren’t as high, but, at the end of the day, I believe it’s a good time for everyone.”
About his injuries, Newman said on the “Today” show: “It takes time for it to heal. I was knocked out. There was a point where I don’t remember a part of the race. Realistically, I feel so lucky. On so many levels, I feel so lucky. You look at the crash and you think that is spectacular in a bad way. You look at the car afterwards, you think about all the things that happened right for me to be sitting here.”
As for when he will return, Newman said: “I don’t know yet. We’re working on it. Soon as I possibly can.”
Newman led the Daytona 500 with 1 mile to go last month after being pushed to the front by Ryan Blaney. After exiting Turn 4, Newman blocked Blaney, who then tried to push Newman to the win to ensure a Ford victory. But one of the shoves from Blaney’s car unsettled Newman’s car and it turned into the wall.
Newman’s car went airborne. Corey LaJoie couldn’t avoid Newman’s car and hit it on the driver’s side while it was upside down. Newman’s car landed on its roof and slid down the frontstretch, coming to rest beyond the exit of pit road.
“It all kind of came together Friday when we were home,” said T.J. Majors, spotter for Joey Logano, on the Twitch broadcast of the iRacing event, The Replacements 100. “Bryan Cook had the same idea as I did, Boris at JGR, and then Kevin Hamlin put a lot of work into this as well. … We started adding drivers to the list. A lot of fun. It’s unfortunate circumstances that we’re all home today, but we’re just trying to make the most of it and give people something to do and watch and have some fun.”
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As NASCAR entered its first weekend without racing on the track, Bristol Motor Speedway issued a statement Sunday afternoon. Part of the statement read:
“As these uncertain times unfold, we remain in constant contact with health officials, NASCAR and key stakeholders to continue to monitor this pandemic closely. … We must move forward preparing for our events, even if there’s a chance it might not happen, but know that we’re doing our part to enhance our cleaning efforts, locating additional handwashing for our fan zone areas and providing hand sanitizer around the property.”
Bristol is scheduled to host Cup, Xfinity and ARCA East on April 3-5.
“Large events and mass gatherings can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the United States via travelers who attend these events and introduce the virus to new communities. Examples of large events and mass gatherings include conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, weddings, and other types of assemblies. These events can be planned not only by organizations and communities but also by individuals.
Therefore, CDC, in accordance with its guidance for large events and mass gatherings, recommends that for the next 8 weeks, organizers (whether groups or individuals) cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States.”
Things can change. NASCAR’s statement Thursday announcing plans to race without fans started: “At this time …” and ended with: “We will work with public health officials as we determine future scheduling beyond these events.”
Plans remain for next weekend’s NASCAR races at Homestead-Miami Speedway to be held without fans.
But how much longer can this go? Or will this go? There are indications that other sports are prepared to be idle for weeks.
In a letter to fans Thursday night, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated: “This hiatus will last at least 30 days and we intend to resume the season, if and when, it becomes safe for. all concerned.”
The NCAA canceled the men’s and women’s basketball tournament, turning March Madness into March Sadness, and all spring sport championships, including some events that would not be held until after Memorial Day.
PGA Golf, which stated Thursday that The Players Championship would continue with no fans, reversed course and announced at 10 p.m. ET that it was canceling the event. That means every PGA Tour event is canceled up to the Masters, which is scheduled from April 9-12.
The CDC stated that Georgia, where NASCAR races this weekend, had reported 31 cases of COVID-19 (both confirmed and presumptive pending test results). Only Washington (366 cases), New York (217), California (175), Massachusetts (95) and Colorado (34) had more cases than Georgia.
Should NASCAR race this weekend and be one of the few sports to compete? To some sports-starved fans, NASCAR (and IndyCar) will be viewed as a hero for doing so. Others, though, may question both sports for holding an event during a pandemic.
Either way, today begins with NASCAR competitors scheduled to be on track at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
2. What’s next?
Once the NBA announced Wednesday night it was suspending its season because of COVID-19, momentum began to build for other sports to follow, leading to Thursday’s string of cancellations and postponements.
With NASCAR continuing, many questions remain. Beyond plans to race at Atlanta and Miami the next two weeks, then what?
Both Texas Motor Speedway, which will host the Cup race on March 29, and Bristol Motor Speedway, which will host the Cup race on April 5, issued statements via social media. Texas Motor Speedway’s statement noted that track officials are “closely monitoring facts and in frequent communications with public health officials. We are currently preparing to host our regularly scheduled events and will continue consulting with officials on best practices and recommendations.”
Bristol Motor Speedway stated Thursday that “there are no changes to our NASCAR race weekend April 2-5. Bristol Motor Speedway is working closely with our state and local health officials in preparation for our events.”
To collect the $100,000, a full-time Cup driver does not have to win. They only have to finish better than Busch but cannot do so by unfairly roughing him up. If more than one full-time Cup driver places ahead of Busch, the one who finishes highest wins all the money.
But that bounty left Truck series regulars out. So, Halmar International and truck owner Chris Larsen are putting up a $50,000 bounty for any Truck series regular.
To collect the $50,000 from Larsen, a Truck series regular needs to win the race. Also, Busch must be running at the finish. The bounty is for Atlanta but would continue to Busch’s next race, Homestead, if he wins.
Should Busch win at Atlanta, Larsen and Hal-mar will donate $25,000 to the Bundle of Joy fund, which is a part of the Kyle Busch Foundation and provides funds for families struggling to conceive.
4. Ready to collect
Although Johnny Sauter could collect a $50,000 bonus for beating Kyle Busch and winning Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he’s not focused on the bounty.
“There’s no greater thing in the world or feeling,” Sauter told NBC Sports of winning. “Even though I’ve been fortunate enough to win a lot of races, it never gets old. … That’s what we do this for, at least that’s what I do it for. It’s not for bounty money or anything else. Winning races is awesome. So when you have trucks that are capable of doing it, especially where we’re at right now, I feel like we’re going to win quite a few races this year.”
Sauter, the 2016 Truck champion, has finished no worse than third in the last three Truck races at Atlanta. He’s also off to a strong start this season, placing seventh at Daytona and second to Busch at Las Vegas.
While there will be plenty of attention on Busch, Sauter doesn’t focus on such things.
“It’s just another person to beat,” Sauter said. “There’s no question that Kyle brings his ‘A’ game, not only with himself but with the program and the whole deal. A lot of people, I think, it bothers them that he runs in the Truck Series. Me personally, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. I know why he does it, and I think it’s good for his business and his company to run the Truck Series personally.
“When I look at him, he’s beatable. We’ve beaten him before. There’s no question to beat him you’re going to have to have everything going the way it needs to go. But at the end of the day when you do beat him, it feels good, but I like beating everybody.”
If not Sauter, another candidate among the Truck Series regulars to beat Busch would be 2018 champion Brett Moffitt.
Moffitt won at Atlanta in 2018 — the last time a Truck Series regular won there (Busch won last year’s truck race there).
“To have a shot for us to go win 50 grand from Chris Larsen, I think that makes it all the more exciting,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “I think it’s kind of Chris Larsen’s way of saying our guys are talented too … that they can run with any of the Cup guys that come down here.
“Obviously we haven’t done a good job of that in the last seven races that Kyle has been in, but I feel it can be done.
“I have confidence that we can beat him on the right day. With his talent and the amount of effort he puts into his organization at KBM, that Toyota helps him out with, it’s a tough combination to beat. He’s proven that.
“I think it can be done. I’ve had a few races over the last couple of years with him where I feel like if things would have fallen a little differently, I would have a shot at it, but I’m sure many others have felt the same way. We have yet to deliver on it and I understand that. We’ll just keep putting our best foot forward and go after it.”
Brad Keselowski has finished no worse than second in the last three Atlanta Cup races. He won in 2017, finished second in 2018 and won again last year.
Team Penske already has won two races this season with Joey Logano at Las Vegas and Phoenix. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney has had among the best cars in three of the first four races. Could it be Keselowski’s time to shine this weekend?