A week after a late-race bump-and-run pass ended William Byron’s hope of a win in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, the Hendrick Motorsports driver who cut his teeth in the virtual racing world dominated a crash-filled Food City Showdown at virtual Bristol Motor Speedway.
For the second week in a row, the driver of the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet dominated in the virtual racing series that is following the NASCAR Cup Series schedule that has been paused due the COVID-19 pandemic. But this time, Byron was able to pull away from John Hunter Nemechek and Matt DiBenedetto during a restart with four laps to go and drive away with the win after leading 116 laps in the race.
Byron admitted that in the moment, losing the way he did at virtual Texas the week before stung – even though it wasn’t a “real” race – and makes this win a little sweeter.
“I mean, obviously when the race is going, I think anybody would be dumb to tell you that they don't take it seriously because it's a race, but it took me probably an hour after the race to really cool off and realize that I was just racing on the computer and I could get over it."
“For me mentally, I try to treat it as a race when the race is going on," Byron added. "But I think that it was just frustrating because we hadn't closed one out yet and we had led the most laps, so to finally close the deal this week was really awesome.”
This week’s race had a new look for the Pro Invitational Series as it was limited to a select group of 32 current and former Cup Series drivers. A pair of 50-lap heat races set the field for the main 150-lap feature, which had Busch Pole Award winner Byron and Nemechek on the front row after winning their respective heats.
The race had a total of 12 cautions, as the particularly challenging virtual Bristol Motor Speedway stumped several of the drivers who have seen success at the real venue, including brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch, who have combined for 14 Cup Series wins at the track. Kyle finished 18th after bringing out the final caution of the day following contact with Ryan Preece near the front of the field, and Kurt was 19th.
The race was not without intensity, as one would expect at a short track like Bristol. Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson were black-flagged and parked for intentional contact on the track. And Bubba Wallace disconnected early on following an on-track incident.
“I think the easy excuse is to say, oh, it's a game and all that, but at the end of the day, everyone is racing, and seeing how much time some guys have put in, I know that it means something to them,” the race-winning Byron said of the hard feelings on the track.
“You've got to race. It's race craft, and I feel like race craft is the same no matter what you're racing; whether it's on a computer or at the dirt track or at an asphalt race, it's the same.”
Nemechek, last week’s winner Timmy Hill, and the winner of the first race of the virtual series, Denny Hamlin, finished door handle to door handle to door handle at the line to place second, third and fourth, respectively.
Hill has now posted a top-three finish in each of the three races in the Pro Invitational Series after starting off with a third-place result at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway. Hill, Garrett Smithley (ninth today at Bristol) and Ryan Preece (sixth today) are the only drivers who have recorded top-10 finishes in each of the races.
The win was particularly meaningful for Byron, who used iRacing to get his foot in the door in real-world racing, as it puts him one victory shy of 1,500 iRacing wins. His prowess behind the wheel in the computer-based racing helped him work his way up through the development levels before landing a fulltime NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series ride in 2016.
Byron still uses it to fine-tune his racing skills.
“I try to use iRacing because it improves my race craft, and I feel like we've been doing a good job of promoting it the right way. The races that you can practice on kind of help improve my race craft, and that's why I use it to try to help me on the real car.”
And until he’s able to apply those skills in the “real cars” again, Byron will continue to go after wins in the virtual world.