Monday, March 23, 2020

COMMENTARY: eNASCAR Series Was Just What The Doctor Ordered

While Week Three of NASCAR’s unprecedented COVID-19 shut down is upon us, NASCAR got back on track (in a manner of speaking) Sunday with the running of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Dixie Vodka 150.

The iRacing event, contested on a virtual representation of Homestead Miami Speedway, featured an eclectic lineup of drivers that included seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, William Byron, Austin Dillon, Bobby Labonte and others. They competed remotely from their rumpus rooms, man caves and garages; honoring the self-distancing requests of government officials while still gathering together in the name of competition.

For the record, Hamlin overhauled Earnhardt with a high-line pass on the final lap to win the race, with Earnhardt surviving some last-lap fender rubbing to finish second, ahead of Timmy Hill, Chase Briscoe and pole-starter Garrett Smithley.

The results didn’t really matter, though. What mattered was what the event did to lift the spirits of NASCAR fans across North America.

Regardless of who won or lost, Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series debut provided a much-needed boost to the collective psyche of NASCAR Nation. In a time in our country’s history when normalcy is in extremely short supply, NASCAR, iRacing and FOX Sports banded together to provide 90 minutes of distraction, laughs and competition that can’t help but make the next seven days of self-distancing and isolation a little bit easier to take.

The event combined a level of competitive intensity normally expected from a group of professional athletes with an unprecedented and refreshing dose of “who cares?” With no points to be tallied, no championship to be won and no money on the line – save for the $5,000 Hamlin pledged to contribute to charity if he won – the competitors were looser, more laid-back and more able to simply have fun than we have ever seen them before. FS1 set the tone for the day with its pre-race National Anthem, apparently performed from the singer’s garage in deference to its superior acoustical qualities.

FS1’s usual on-air team of Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds did their usual stand-up job supplying the necessary Xs and O’s, with Clint Bowyer – who is rapidly becoming NASCAR’s version of the NFL’s Rob Gronkowski – supplying color commentary and comic relief from an adjoining studio; all while taking part in the event himself.

Early in the event, it became clear that iRacing and actual racing are not the same, as the top stock racers on the planet slogged their way through repeated, multi-car crashes that slowed the tempo of the event. Johnson seemed particularly out of his element, being caught-up in a pair of skirmishes in the early going, despite running at the back of the pack.

But again, that didn’t really seem to matter.

Nine cautions (or was it 10?) slowed the 100-lap, 150-mile event, forcing FS1 to run approximately 20 minutes long and join Horse Racing Nation a little later than originally planned. But unless you were waiting breathlessly for updated odds for this year’s Kentucky Derby, nobody really cared.

It was… in a word, fun. Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman tweeted during an early caution, “I have to pee. (My dog) Finn may take over during the next caution.” He then blamed the dog for a crash that ultimately took him out of contention; something you just don’t see every day in big-time, professional motorsports.

On social media, fans reacted with near-100% approval, making the race the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter; supplanting even the omnipresent COVID-19 pandemic as the most talked about topic in the Twitterverse.

That’s a wonderful thing, and it was much needed.

On Twitter, which was almost as entertaining as the race itself, the event was a huge success. With the exception of that one NASCAR media person who hates anything and everything about the sport, the event was received with 100% favorable reviews. They ranged from “Really needed this today. My family and I were on the edge of our seats” to “Brought some normal to our Sunday afternoon!”

When the checkered flag flew yesterday, my own gut reaction was “Wait! We’ve got plenty of time left! Line them up and race them again!”

We need more of that sentiment, and the sooner, the better. There hasn’t been much to look forward to in our world lately. Sunday’s race helped, just a bit.

Hamlin’s win was almost certainly the first time a driver has won a big-time NASCAR race while wearing no shoes, since the early days of Junior Johnson. It was his 31st overall iRacing victory, ensuring that if a second series race is organized in the near future – and it sounds like one will be – his fellow drivers will be spending considerable more time practicing than they did this time around.

They’re competitive professional athletes, after all. And fun only goes so far.

In the last 7-10 days, the sale of new iRacing subscriptions had increased roughly 200%. Will iRacing ever replace “real” racing in the hearts and minds of NASCAR Nation? Likely not. But with the COVID-19 pandemic now firmly entrenched across North America and warnings from the infectious disease experts that the worst may still be to come, it looks like we’ll be staying behind closed doors for a little while longer, at least.

And the longer that lasts, the more we’ll need an occasional hour of distraction to keep us from ripping each other’s faces off.

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