Weekend Preview: Toyota Owners 150 at virtual Richmond Raceway

Time for drivers to crank up those gaming consoles, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series is back in action this weekend at virtual Richmond Raceway for the Toyota Owners 150 (Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on FOX, FS1 and the FOX Sports App).

The unique 150-lap eNASCAR iRacing event this weekend will feature a 30-car field (26 invited entries and four transferring from a Sunday morning qualifying race). The starting lineup will be set by a qualifying session, and each driver gets one reset during the main event.

Sunday morning’s Richmond Qualifier will consist of 13 drivers, ranging from fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte to current NASCAR Cup Series drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Suarez. The top two finishers from the 25-lap event will advance to the main race, as well as two additional provisionals chosen by FOX.

Since the inaugural eNASCAR iRacing race back at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, the series has consisted of three different race winners, three different pole winners and various rule changes to shake things up.

During a time when a lot of things weren’t guaranteed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NASCAR industry has rallied behind something that would still give fans their weekly dose of racing competition.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin won the first race at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway. Timmy Hill, an underdog competitor in the NASCAR Cup Series, won the second iRacing race at virtual Texas Motor Speedway. And, William Byron, driver of the historic No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, won the most recent race at virtual Bristol Motor Speedway.

Drivers who haven’t spent a lot of time iRacing in the past, such as seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, are now just as involved in the virtual events as veteran iRacers like Byron, Hill and Garrett Smithley.

NASCAR Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender, Tyler Reddick, is another driver that didn’t have much iRacing experience but has really taken it seriously and practiced getting better in the virtual world. Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and other big names in NASCAR are in the same boat.

Johnson, who has been practicing for hours each day on his new sim rig to feel a sense of normalcy, has a new-found understanding of the virtual racing world and why drivers and fans enjoy it so much.

“It brought a little bit of structure for me; more than I anticipated honestly, because I was just so far behind in the sim experience. But to see the viewership numbers and understand how much fun the fans are having watching it, it has motivated me and has me highly interested to keep it going,” Johnson said. “As we look around and see other sports try to figure out how to virtually offer something for their fans, we were one of the first, if not the first, to do it and do it well and break all kinds of records in the process. So, hats off to everybody to pull it though and our partners on the television-side to allow this to happen.”

The series was idle last weekend in observance of the Easter holiday, but the weekend before that the series visited virtual Bristol Motor Speedway. Byron was on the pole for the event and ended up dominating the caution-filled race, and home his 293rd iRacing victory.

Byron, who got his racing start by utilizing iRacing as a learning tool, treats each virtual race the same way he would a regular race at the track.

“Yeah, 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,” Byron said. “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.”

The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series has given drivers of all different levels the opportunity to compete on an equal platform and it’s really showcased some of the drivers you might not hear about as much.

“For me personally, what I’ll gain from this is recognition,” said Hill, winner of virtual Texas Motor Speedway. “For us, it’s hard to get that recognition because of the level of competition that we are in, in real life. But this win will hopefully gain us some recognition and attract more sponsors in the real world when we get back racing because they know Timmy Hill from iRacing, from FOX, from this invitational. That’s what I hope from it. Hopefully it will help me in the real world.”

The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series drew in such a crowd that iRacing introduced Saturday Night Thunder. This event features drivers from the NASCAR Xfinity Series, NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, ARCA Menards Series, NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series and the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series.

The inaugural event was two weeks ago at virtual Bristol Motor Speedway and real-life dirt racer Logan Seavey took the checkered flag after passing Chase Cabre with 13 laps to go. Saturday Night Thunder is now an event that will be on the weekly iRacing schedule, continuing in order to provide a platform for everyone involved in NASCAR to keep racing.

This weekend at virtual Richmond Raceway, the Saturday Night Thunder event will take place at 8 p.m. ET and fans can catch the race on eNASCAR.com/live and streamed live on NASCAR’s YouTube Channel.