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March 27, 2020

Drivers preview virtual Texas: ‘It’s the hot thing to do’

If you didn’t know better, NASCAR drivers were preparing for a race at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend as they would any other season. And even with a pause on the national sports scene because of the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR is still going to be racing at Texas – only this week it will do so with a popular twist.

Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 125 (1 p.m. ET available on FOX – where available and subject to change, FS1 and the FOX Sports App) is the second race of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series that has captivated NASCAR’s best racers and, equally as importantly, thrilled NASCAR’s large and loyal fanbase, which can count itself fortunate to still have the ability to watch so many of its favorites compete – albeit virtually.

RELATED: FOX Sports to air eNASCAR races | iRacing scratches drivers’ competitive itch

“What a wonderful opportunity for the sport, for racing in general,” said Stewart-Haas Racing driver Clint Bowyer, who last week served as an in-race commentator for the FS1 television broadcast and finished 16th out 35 in the opening race. “iRacing has been around a long time and it’s just something that keeps evolving and they’ve perfected. Here we all are, just longing for some sports action, some competitive action that we can broadcast and show a fan, and then – boom – here it is in our lap.”

Certainly there was a bit of a learning curve for some of these NASCAR regulars in last week’s opener at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway. Denny Hamlin edged Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a dramatic bump-and-run on the last lap. iRacing regular Timothy Hill finished third, followed by Chase Briscoe and pole winner Garrett Smithley.

Hill and Smithley, who compete for smaller teams in the NASCAR Cup Series, may not be race favorites on the real track yet, but they are strong and experienced iRacers who turned some heads with their performances last week. And they competed with a comparatively modest set-up – steering wheels attached to their desks at home with a single computer screen. Hamlin, for example, sat in a rig with roll-bars and three computer screens – a set-up he estimated probably cost upward of $40,000.

Both Hill and Smithley said this week’s virtual race on the notoriously tough 1.5-mile Texas high banks will be an entirely new test for the field because its new repave has only recently been updated in the iRacing format.

“It’s so neat with iRacing how they laser-scan these race tracks and it’s identical to real-life,” Hill explained. “So, Texas was repaved not too long ago and iRacing went down there and scanned the new re-pave and actually for iRacing. We’ve been running the old pavement up until this year. They’ve just recently come out with the new race track, so I’ve never even been on it yet.”

That new competitive element may well come into play. But regardless, many of NASCAR’s top drivers have spent the week upping their iRacing game with much more practice or even a new simulator.

Two-time and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch finished 29th Sunday, driving friend Ty Gibbs’ sim rig with very little practice on it. Busch said he went to great lengths to borrow a sim for his home this week. And to practice.

“So now, after we put Brexton (Busch, son) to bed, I can go down there and start working on getting better,” Busch explained. “Texas seems like it’s going to be a heck of a lot more simple than Homestead was as far as the driving aspect. You just have to hit your marks in Turns 1 and 2 and get back to the gas in Turns 3 and 4, which are going to be wide open.”

His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Erik Jones, who finished 10th last week at virtual Homestead, is equally enthusiastic about another chance in the competition. Jones conceded, however, he wasn’t able to put as much practice time in as he may have wanted this week because he is moving – the opposite scenario of what he’s expecting from the competition.

“I honestly did not know how I’d do in last week’s race at Homestead,” said Jones, who drives the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the NASCAR Cup Series. “It had been forever since I last went iRacing, so it was like I was a rookie all over again. But things came to me fairly quickly, although I’m still nowhere near where I want to be.

“Performance aside, I think we all came away from that race impressed with how the entire industry rallied around it, and fans seemed to like it, too. Now we’re on big FOX this Sunday, so even more people will be watching. Obviously, that’s good, but it does kind of ramp up the pressure. You want to do well. Even though it’s a simulation, we’re all competitors and we want to win.”

Bowyer confirmed as much.

“It reminds me of a rookie coming into the Cup Series,” Bowyer said. “You’re up against guys who have been doing it for years, decades and you’re expected to jump right into the deep end and compete with them and run door-to-door with them and beat them.

“The pressure is on for all of us to gain that almighty seat time as much as we can. During the evenings and during the days, whenever you can jump on it, we’re all doing it.”

Bowyer, Busch, Jones, Hamlin, you name it. So many of the sport’s top names are certainly all onboard with this opportunity to simultaneously stay on their game and provide good racing for the fans. The chance to showcase the sport again nationally on the FOX network is a huge plus, and both competitors and fans seem to be enjoying this new normal.

“Everyone’s doing it – it’s the hot thing to do – and it was certainly fun to do last weekend to help everyone forget about everything that is happening in the real world,” Busch said. “Everyone seems to enjoy it. A lot of guys are getting a little more serious about it and everyone is spending more time on it, so I figured if I’m going to stop running 30th, I’m going to need to get some more laps.”