HOMESTEAD, Fla. – It took a nationally-televised eSports race to lure Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of NASCAR retirement, but the perennial fan favorite’s return nearly ended in victory on Sunday.
Earnhardt was the runner-up in a thrilling opener to the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, taking the lead with five laps left and appearing to be on his way to a much-loved win – if not for Denny Hamlin’s fresher tires.
The driver of the simulated No. 8 FilterTime Chevrolet went door to door with Hamlin coming out of the final corner, with Hamlin darting home to the win thanks in part to 10-lap fresher tires that he took under the final caution period of the race inside of 25 to go.
Earnhardt, who pitted for the last time with roughly 30 laps left, led twice for 14 laps but came .152 seconds short of the checkered flag in a three-wide photo finish for second.
“That was fun,” noted Earnhardt. “Denny had about 10-lap fresher tires than we did, and he’s very, very good. I’ve raced him on here for two decades and thought he’d be tough to beat. I thought William Byron would be really hard to beat, too.”
Earnhardt was quick to admit after the race that, even though there weren’t thousands of dollars on the line if race cars had been wrecked coming off the final corner, he still wanted to have a respectful race to the finish line.
“I was trying to get a good finish, I was trying to win the race and I was trying not to wreck anybody,” Earnhardt continued. “I probably gave Denny a little more room than I wanted to, but I had to in order to keep from crashing him or anybody else. We got together off turn four, and I thought I might have been able to get a photo finish at the line, but we about wrecked there and had to hang onto it.
“Denny had the tires and was really, really fast. It was just a fun race.”
Perhaps somewhat appropriately, the last-lap duel on Sunday came down to a pair of drivers who have been involved in online racing and eSports since virtually the dawn of the discipline.
It was a fact Earnhardt nodded to in some of his additional post-race comments on Periscope following conclusion of the 150-miler.
“It’s not the first time that Denny’s beaten me in sim-racing,” Earnhardt noted. “He’s pretty good. I was tired after that one, but I’ve been racing on iRacing for about two decades and have been racing against Denny for about that long, too. … Heck, I qualified fifth and probably shouldn’t have qualified that well. That shows you that there’s a lot of fast guys (on the service) and a lot of guys that put in a lot of work to get better in a short time.
“Denny doesn’t really race (on iRacing) a lot, but did a lot this week to be able to get competitve, and it definitely showed,” he added. “A lot of guys did the same thing. You may see a couple more characters pop up over the next few weeks … so that should be pretty fun, but it was neat to battle Denny down to the end for that one today.”
While it wasn’t a victory, Sunday was a well-documented strong run for a longtime fan favorite who got a chance to put his hat back in the ring at least one more time.
And as Jeff Gordon aptly noted on the FOX Sports 1 live broadcast, it was indeed a chance to hear the “virtual fans going crazy” when Earnhardt went to the lead once more.
There’s no doubt that plenty of Junior Nation was doing the same in real life, as well.