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March 29, 2020

Hill bumps past Byron, holds on late to win Pro Invitational race at Texas

Timmy Hill gave the afternoon’s dominant car, driven by William Byron, the virtual bump-and-run with three laps remaining to take the race lead and then ultimately held off fellow NASCAR Cup Series drivers Ryan Preece and Garrett Smithley for the victory in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 125, the second event in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series.

Byron, who drives the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, led 80 laps, but Hill’s move with three laps in regulation was good enough to flush Byron back into the pack. A caution came out, and Hill then had to hold off fellow iRacing regulars Preece and Smithley on a green-white-checkered restart. Byron ended up seventh.

RELATED: Full race results | Comparing drivers’ iRacing rigs

It was the 27-year-old Maryland native’s 674th iRacing victory, but Hill acknowledged it was among the most important of his career.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” Hill said. “Very exciting times for us because we just don’t get the recognition on a normal basis. To be on an even playing field is excellent. To be on this platform, the Cup platform, is exciting. The amount of folks that reached out to me has just been tremendous.

“The last lap was just one I will definitely remember for a while.”

Hill said he had already participated in his usual victory celebration — his wife gave him a big glass of milk to drink.

“Downed that right away and hugged her,” he said.

“I had quite a bit of friends that were in my channel throughout the race that were spotting me, crew chiefing me throughout the race. I kind of got to chat with them. I am not surrounded by all my loved ones right now because everybody is trying to be safe. But I got a lot of phone calls, messages. I feel like the hero today.”

Although Hill, who has 1,677 iRacing starts, essentially paces the field in iRacing virtual experience, in the real world, he competes for a smaller, low-budget team. He qualified for his first Daytona 500 only this February driving the No. 66 for Motorsports Business Management and finished 27th — his best showing in the four races NASCAR held before putting the regular season on hold as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The opportunity to continue to compete — albeit virtually — against many of the same NASCAR Cup Series drivers, plus a group of drivers from other NASCAR series who qualified, has been a significant achievement for Hill, a sort of virtual victory for the real life underdog.

For example, Hill is competing in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series with a 12-year-old steering wheel attached to a desk with only a single viewing monitor to conduct his race — a stark difference from last week’s inaugural winner, Denny Hamlin, who estimates he spent nearly $40,000 on his elaborate simulator setup, which is high-end all the way from its high-tech race seat to the three monitors and pedal system.

Hill, on the other hand, estimates his wheel cost him $300. It’s mounted to a $75 desk he got at a local office store. He sits in a $100 chair coordinating his race on a gaming computer that cost him about $1,400 by his estimate. But, he noted, it’s his primary laptop computer and he doesn’t just use it for iRacing but for everything — from running his NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Series team to filling out a personal tax return.

“For me personally the iRacing platform, it’s kind of an equalizer in effect that the cars that we’re driving on there, I’m in the same cars as everybody,” Hill said. “Most weekends, I’m not in that situation. I’m in a situation where I’m racing on 15 lap tires, have a motor that’s 200 horsepower down, got a car that’s probably five years old. I’m really kind of behind the eight ball as soon as we show up at the racetrack at times.

“To come into the server where everybody has the same cars, in this case even the same setup, everybody is on the same exact playing field, basically the driver conquers all in this situation. I had more experience coming into it because I’ve been on the service quite a bit longer. I knew that would be to my advantage. At the end of the day, these guys are all competitors, they’re all turning hundreds of laps. They’re all doing the best they can.”

Certainly this second week of competition featured an even more robust level of performance — from fewer multi-car incidents, to fantastic racing up front. Byron, who famously helped earn his NASCAR opportunities through his excellence in iRacing won the Busch Pole position and showed the way for much of the race, which featured 10 leaders and 16 lead changes.

“Led most laps, got moved out of the way. We’ll get him back next time! Thanks,” Byron said on Twitter after the race.

Hill acknowledged Byron may not have been too thrilled with the bump-and-run pass for the win, but it was his only opportunity for victory — something he hoped the 22-year-old Byron would understand in the coming days.

“I think the etiquette is similar to real life; basically you race people how they race you,” Hill said. “… Going forward, I’m sure William isn’t happy about it. I’m sure he’ll do the same back to me. … I’ll probably get a lot of abuse going forward. I’ll have to accept that. But that’s in the future. I’m kind of living in the present and happy to get the win.”

The win — on a nationally televised NASCAR event — could be a game-changer for Hill; possibly attracting more sponsorship to either the Gander Truck team he owns or perhaps his Cup Series car. The implications go beyond the virtual dashboard.

“For me personally, I’ve been in this sport for 10 years, don’t get talked about much,” he said. “I feel like I can get the job done given an opportunity. I’m trying to showcase that as many times as I can.”

One thing for sure, Hill will receive an iconic memento of his work.

As he was completing the winner’s press conference via conference call after the event, Texas’ track president Eddie Gossage offered a real — not virtual — winner’s cowboy hat, the traditional celebration in the Fort Worth Victory Lane.

“Excellent,” Hill said, when informed of the news.

It was indeed an excellent day for Hill.