Speedway Digest Staff
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Matt DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Mustang will return to competition on network TV this weekend as the sport’s iRacing wing steps up to deliver live content to a sports world starved for entertainment due to the coronavirus.
Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race at virtual Texas Motor Speedway is the second event held this season featuring mostly Cup drivers but the first to be carried on FOX. Last week’s race at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway was broadcast on FOX Sports 1, which also is airing this week’s race.
The Invitational races might seem on the surface like a hastily assembled affair, but they are made possible by iRacing’s infrastructure already in place.
Drivers participate via computers in their own homes, with their consoles varying from $40,000 rigs to some costing just a few hundred dollars.
The Wood Brothers, with backing from the dockless electric scooter rental company Spin, a Ford Motor Co. property, already were involved in on-line racing and fielded four drivers last year.
Two competed in the 18-race NASCAR Peak iRacing League, and two more in the 16-race season for the NASCAR Heat Pro League.
Jon Wood, senior vice president and co-owner of the Wood Brothers team, said the foundation already laid by iRacing is the reason NASCAR fans can watch Cup drivers in action even though the traditional cars are idled indefinitely.
“iRacing took a chance before anyone else in being a NASCAR eSports league,” Wood said, giving much of the credit to iRacing Executive Vice President and Executive Producer Steve Myers, and to Otto Szebeni, who is iRacing’s director of sales and marketing. “We met them at Homestead in 2018 and they mentioned the idea of having an esports league.
“We really knew nothing about what they were planning, but the notion of an iRacing league, made up of some Cup teams seemed like a really good idea.
“We joined in and were actually the first team to commit, not knowing if it would be a total flop or a booming success.”
After some initial difficulties explaining the concept of online racing to the old-school members of his family’s race team, Wood said his team now fully supports a venture that has become a leader in a sports world scrambling for ways to deliver content.
And, as with their traditional Cup team, the Woods have strong support from Ford in their iRacing venture.
Wood credited Brett Wheatley, who once oversaw the Motorcraft sponsorship and now oversees the company’s mobility and autonomous vehicle businesses including Spin, with recognizing the potential of esports like iRacing.
“Brett wanted to be a part of our esports venture, seeing it for what it could be at some point down the road,” Wood said. I think he accurately called that shot.”
Now, with few sports broadcasting options other than re-runs, the vision of folks like Wheatley and the iRacing execs is paying off.
“The shutting down of all of America has kickstarted the e-sports revolution, but iRacing was already there and totally killing it long before this virus took hold,” Wood said. “If not for last year’s Peak Series and this year’s Coca-Cola iRacing Series, I can almost guarantee we wouldn’t be talking about iRacing in the way we are now.”
“The infrastructure and relationships were already there because of team involvement.”
Wood said it took no more than a single text message relating to last Sunday’s Homestead race. From letting the team know the race would happen to making sure Matt and his Motorcraft/Quick Lane Mustang would be involved was a single back and forth text. No contracts, no delays.
“That level of trust and knowing whatever they do, we know it will be done right. That wouldn’t exist had it not been for the already existing relationships we have, and I think many other teams probably have very similar experiences,” Wood said.
The O’Reilly Auto Parts 125 race at virtual Texas Motor Speedway takes place on Sunday, March 29, at 1 p.m. Eastern Time and is available on FOX, FS1, and the FOX Sports app.
In what came down to a last-second decision in the final matchup, the Final Four is set in #RoushMadness as No. 1 seeds Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards advanced, while the No. 7 seed Ryan Newman pulled the ultimate upset over No. 1 Mark Martin.
The two final four matchups – Biffle vs. Edwards and Kenseth vs. Newman – get underway Thursday night with voting set to end Friday at noon ET. From there, the Championship will take place Friday night to determine the fans’ choice in the greatest driver in Roush Fenway Racing history.
Newman Pulls Ultimate Upset Over Martin
With over 6600 votes cast, and a deciding margin of just 146 votes, Newman took down No. 1 overall seed Martin on Thursday, 51-49, to advance through to the Final Four. At one point, Martin trimmed the difference to just a point, but Newman again rallied the troops on Twitter to decide it.
Edwards Too Much for McMurray in Elite Eight
Edwards managed to tally the second-largest blowout of the tournament in terms of total votes (1245), defeating Jamie McMurray 84-16.
Biffle Bests Ragan
Biffle, who holds the fourth-most amount of votes throughout #RoushMadness thus far with 2899, handled No. 2 David Ragan with ease, 82-18.
Kenseth Topples Burton to Move On
The Mayor’s run in #RoushMadness came to an end in the Elite Eight after falling to Kenseth, 71-29.
It’s a True Fastenal Final Four
Fastenal, celebrating its 10-Year Anniversary with Roush Fenway in 2020, has the perfect scenario in the Fastenal Final Four, as all four remaining drivers ran a Fastenal branded-car at some point in their careers.
Fastenal joined the RFR stable in 2010 coming on board as an Xfinity Series partner for Carl Edwards’ No. 60 entry. They followed Edwards to the NASCAR Cup Series in 2012, sponsoring him in the No. 99 entry until his departure at the end of 2014. From there, they partnered with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., beginning in 2015, and now serve as the primary for Chris Buescher’s No. 17 machine.
At one point in the company’s history, they served as the primary partner on all three of Jack Roush’s NCS entries, at the 2012 Charlotte spring race, where Biffle, Kenseth and Edwards each carried Fastenal colors. That trend followed again in 2013 and 2014 when Stenhouse joined Biffle and Edwards in Fastenal blue for the spring Charlotte events.
For Newman, Fastenal was aboard his No. 5 machine for JR Motorsports in the 2009 Xfinity Series season, including races at Dover, Chicago, Michigan and Bristol.
Vote Leaders Thus Far
With just four drivers left, Newman leads the way in total sum of votes in #RoushMadess, amassing 6903. Martin is next-closest with 5428, with Edwards (3864), Biffle (2899) and McMurray (2610) rounding out the top five.
The Final Four kicks off Thursday night with Biffle vs. Edwards and Kenseth vs. Newman. In terms of Cup wins, that’s 19 vs. 28 and 39 vs. 18. In terms of car numbers, matchups feature the No. 16 vs. No. 99, and No. 17 vs. No. 6.
Earlier today, the NTT IndyCar Series announced schedule changes which involved both the Indianapolis 500 and World Wide Technology Raceway. As a result, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 now will take place on Sunday, August 30, 2020.
“The current situation requires that everyone be fluid, solve problems and work together,” said WWTR Owner and CEO Curtis Francois. “The entire INDYCAR organization worked closely with us to come to a solution that enables us to host the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 just one week later than originally scheduled. We are grateful for their continued support and will be coming up with creative ideas for the promotion of the event.
“We now are in conversations with the other sanctioning bodies involved with the race weekend to develop a new event schedule of activities. We will be providing updates as soon possible so that our fans can enjoy a great weekend of racing in St. Louis on August 28-30, 2020.”
Fans are encouraged to visit WWTR’s website, www.wwtraceway.com, and its social media channels (@wwtraceway) for additional information.
For additional information on World Wide Technology Raceway, please call (618) 215-8888 ext. 119 or visit www.WWTRaceway.com. Follow WWTR on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.