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Sports are about connection and NASCAR delivered that with its virtual race

The Charlotte Observer — By Alex Andrejev The Charlotte Observer

March 22-- Sunday's virtual NASCAR race at Homestead-Miami Speedway wasn't about the racing. (That part was pretty much a wreck-fest.)

The iRacing event was about the fact that Mike Joy's voice described the weather conditions and turnout before the race, even if both were simulated and Joy sat six feet away from his FOX NASCAR co-host Jeff Gordon. It was about the fact that the national anthem was sung, even if it was broadcast from a garage. And it was about the fact that Cup drivers were on the track, even if they sat in their home offices behind simulator rigs.

In short, the virtual race was about bringing some semblance of normalcy to a world that feels far from that in the wake of a global pandemic.

"Heavenly Father, be present now with people around the globe who need your healing touch," Motor Racing Outreach president Billy Mauldin said in his invocation.

"And for all of the health care workers, researchers and first-responders on the front line, protect them, renew their energy and sustain them, and give them wisdom," Mauldin's prayer continued.

There was recognition of the unavoidable reality that the coronavirus has forced upon the NASAR, sports and broader world, but for 1.5 hours on Sunday, racing fans could turn on their televisions or log onto their computers and feel connected through a live racing event.

Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag, passing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final lap of the 100-lap NASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series exhibition race. Earnhardt Jr. finished in second place. He was followed by Timmy Hill, Chase Briscoe and Garrett Smithley.

"That was unbelievable," Hamlin said after running virtual victory donuts. "I didn't think we were going to get back there. Especially with 10 (laps) to go, we were 13th or so and I kinda got bottled up there."

Hamlin took the top line in the final two laps to give him the advantage over MBM Motorsports driver Hill and Cup veteran Earnhardt Jr. It was a top-10 finishing order NASCAR fans wouldn't see in any other time or place.

As for the rest of the field and the early laps, the race was crash-heavy as Cup drivers less familiar with the iRacing setup got their feet wet on the simulator rigs.

"I hope everyone enjoyed that today," Jimmie Johnson tweeted following the race. "I clearly have a ton to learn."

Johnson punctuated his tweet with a laughing-crying emoji. The seven-time Cup Series champion finished 31st out of the 35-person field and sparked a major wreck before the halfway point. Fortunately, the damage cost his Hendrick Motorsports team zero dollars to repair. Each driver received two resets for the virtual exhibition race.

Johnson's Cup Series teammate William Byron used both of his resets and did not finish the irace he was expected to dominate. Byron, an iRacing team owner and regular sim competitor, reflected on his race on Twitter.

"Dang, just didn't prepare for those blocks," Byron tweeted. "Had fun though! What a finish to watch."

He later tweeted at NASCAR that he hopes the virtual races continue. Hamlin said he believes Sunday's event could help bring iRacing more mainstream.

"This is something that really can gain a lot of traction simply because it's as real as it gets," Hamlin said during a post-race phone conference. "I'm excited that this was just a first step and hopefully something that builds for years and years to come."

While many fans, drivers and media members saw the event as a lighthearted escape, time could make the virtual races a more serious competitive event.

"I think if you give everybody a little bit of time over the next few weeks to race on the sim, everyone's gonna get better and better," Byron said. "I'm sure in a few weeks, it's going to be highly competitive."

Even before Sunday's race, Hamlin was doling out his own odds. The No. 11 driver gave himself six-to-one odds, which will now have to be updated.

But the race was about more than the odds and a first-place finish. Hamlin also pledged to donate $5,000 to assist Miami-area residents affected by COVID-19 if he won. With that promise becoming a reality, NASCAR fans are again reminded that even amid a crisis, we can find a shared sense of community support through sport, even digitally.

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