When Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota sped across the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida last month, the victory was unlike any he had experienced. Trailing Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the race’s final lap, Hamlin, the 2006 NASCAR Cup Series rookie of the year, made a final push coming out of Turn 4 and surged past Earnhardt to win a race he had led for only 14 of the 150 laps.
Why so unusual? He was driving barefoot, for one, and was competing from a race simulator at his home outside Charlotte, N.C. For Hamlin, who has 38 Cup victories, including wins at the Daytona 500 in 2016, 2019 and 2020, his triumph at the virtual Homestead track on March 22 came in the inaugural race of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, an event created as a diversion for racing fans during the coronavirus pandemic.
NASCAR postponed the real-life Homestead race, the fifth race on its schedule, on March 13, two days before its start. Then on March 16, all races before May 3 were postponed. As drivers contemplated a long layoff, Tim Clark, NASCAR’s chief digital officer, started to brainstorm. He realized that his organization’s partnership with iRacing, a motor sports racing simulation software company, might be a solution.
Thus was born the eNASCAR series, a virtual racing experience involving the sport’s biggest names. It has been broadcast over the past three weekends on Fox Sports, attracting 903,000 viewers in its first week and 1.3 million in its second, according to Nielsen. Sunday’s race, which took place at a virtual version of Tennessee’s Bristol Motor Speedway, included 11 caution flags before William Byron crossed the finish line first, delivering a win for Hendrick Motorsports. The actress Rita Wilson, who along with her husband, the actor Tom Hanks, had been quarantined because of the virus, sang the national anthem.