Dale Earnhardt Jr
Dale Earnhardt Jr Image Credit: AP

Washington: Though NASCAR has idled since March 8 because of the coronavirus pandemic, three-time and defending Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin was up until 1.30am on Friday trying to figure out how to pare a fraction of a second off his lap times.

And Dale Earnhardt Jr, who retired from full-time racing in 2017, has been back behind the wheel in his home’s computer room, getting up to speed once again with the layout of Homestead-Miami Speedway.

With stock-car racing’s elite series parked until at least May 9, Hamlin, Earnhardt and 32 fellow racers will strap in Sunday — at least, in a virtual sense — to compete in the inaugural eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series.

Ginned up by NASCAR and iRacing executives to feed fans’ appetite for stock-car racing and give drivers something to do amid the hiatus, the idea of a simulated racing series with top drivers got immediate buy-in.

NASCAR has a large fanbase and dramatic action

Many NASCAR drivers, after all, raced on computers before getting their driver’s licenses. And many still do, even after establishing themselves in the Cup Series, whether for kicks or to hone their skills on less familiar tracks.

“It has the potential to really be fun over the next month or so,” said Hamlin. “Hopefully, we can do this on Sundays to keep some fans entertained. Along with that, it gives us something to practice on and keep from going stir-crazy.”

Though it’s not official, NASCAR’s hope is to stage weekly iRaces for as long as its Cup Series is on hold.

Fox, which holds the broadcast rights to the first half of NASCAR’s season, will air Sunday’s leadoff race at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway at the same time the actual race was to have started, 1:30pm, on Fox Sports 1. The action also can be streamed on the Fox Sports app.

The regular Fox broadcast team of Jeff Gordon and Mike Joy will call the action, with Larry McReynolds providing analysis. NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer will play dual roles, providing “in-car” commentary as he races an iRacing simulator in the Fox Studio in Charlotte.

“If this is entertaining and people enjoy it and it fills the gap, I think Fox will want to do more,” Earnhardt said in a telephone interview. “I’ll be sitting here racing in the middle of the house. I might not do every single one over the next several weeks, but there are a lot of other drivers who have similar rigs at home, like me.”

Sunday’s field of 35 includes regular Cup Series front-runners such as two-time and defending champion Kyle Busch, 2018 champion Joey Logano, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski and 2016 rookie of the year Chase Elliott.

In NASCAR’s ideal world, the iRacing Invitational would prove more than a stopgap measure and, over the coming weeks, attract the younger audience NASCAR has been chasing since it ventured into e-sports more than a decade ago.

Stock-car racing’s TV ratings and attendance have declined steadily since the sport’s peak in 2005. Diversifying an ageing, increasingly alienated fan base is essential to NASCAR’s survival.

Noted Tim Clark, NASCAR’s senior vice president and chief digital officer: “We’ve seen that not only the participants in e-sports but also the viewers have skewed significantly younger. Like other sports and media properties, we are looking to engage newer fans and younger fans.”

In that sense, there may be serendipity in a temporary shift to virtual racing.

“We have talked about this as making lemonade out of lemons,” Clark said. “If we can provide a distraction, a form of entertainment — that’s what we’re looking to do.”