Hamlin Rules North Wilkesboro Pro Invitational Finale

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Hamlin Rules North Wilkesboro
Denny Hamlin celebrates with a burnout at virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway on Saturday. (Justin Melillo photo)

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. – Just as he did to open the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series in March, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin closed the simulated tour in victory lane on Saturday afternoon.

Hamlin capped the series – which closed its seven-race run at the virtual revival of historic North Wilkesboro Speedway – in true short-track fashion at the five-eighths-mile oval, using a late-race bump-and-run pass of Ross Chastain to steal the lead for good with nine laps left.

Once out in front, Hamlin drove off in the final laps and took the checkered flag in front of Timmy Hill by .913 seconds.

“I knew we had the fastest car; it was just about getting back through traffic after we got in an early incident,” Hamlin explained after the race. “That wasn’t advantageous for us, but we were able to methodically work our way back to the front. We took the lead on that long run in the middle of the race and had a great battle with Christopher (Bell) before things got crazy there late in the going.

“I wanted to control the race, but I definitely didn’t think those (on) two tires would hang on as well as they did,” he added. “We didn’t have as many laps near the finish as I thought we were going to have, either, but luckily I got a good restart and got to third. That helped a lot. Once I got rid of Timmy (Hill) for second and I got to Ross, he tried to cut down and were battling pretty hard.

“That was a great finish, though; it was just two guys going for the same spot. Once he saw I was going low, he pulled down to try and block and we both let off the gas at about the same time.”

Saturday’s 160-lap, 100-mile race marked the debut of North Wilkesboro to the iRacing platform, with the simulation service digitally recreating the famed North Carolina short track as it appeared in 1987.

North Wilkesboro is slated to be released publically on June 2, but NASCAR’s stars put on an early show.

The sprint to the finish was set up by a multi-car crash at lap 136, which swept up both regular in-sim analyst Clint Bowyer and retired four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who was making his second Pro Invitational start on Saturday afternoon.

Chastain lined up on the front row alongside Timmy Hill, with Hamlin charging forward from further back when the green flag waved for the final time with 15 laps left at the simulated Wilkes County oval.

As Chastain tried to race away, both Christopher Bell – who led a race-high 61 laps through the middle stages – and Martin Truex Jr. spun mid-pack, but iRacing officials kept the caution flag tucked away.

Denny Hamlin (11) passes Ross Chastain for the win Saturday at the virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway. (Justin Melillo photo)

That allowed Hamlin to get to second place with 10 to go, and he wasted no time in getting right to the bumper of Chastain’s virtual Ford Mustang in an effort to battle for the victory.

Two laps later, Hamlin made his move as Chastain tried to block the advance of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry entering turn one, making contact with the left-rear corner of Chastain’s Ford and sending the Alva, Fla., watermelon farmer skidding sideways through turn one.

As Chastain gathered up his race car, Hamlin took a lead he wouldn’t relinquish en route to his second Pro Invitational win and 32nd iRacing oval victory overall in his 170th oval start on the service.

Hill snuck through the late chaos to finish as the runner-up, giving him an average finish of fourth across the seven Pro Invitational events. He would have been the unofficial series champion by 34 points.

Tyler Reddick crossed third ahead of Chastain, who faded to finish fourth, with Austin Dillon completing the top five.

Garrett Smithley was sixth, followed by Brennan Poole, fast qualifier Parker Kligerman, Kevin Harvick and Landon Cassill.

Jon Wood filled in for Matt DiBenedetto behind the wheel of the famed Wood Brothers Racing No. 21, sporting a Marvin Panch throwback paint scheme in honor of the late Ray Lee Wood, who passed away early in the week ahead of the virtual North Wilkesboro event. Wood finished 13th, on the lead lap.

Retired four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, the last NASCAR winner at North Wilkesboro in real life, made his second Pro Invitational start on Saturday and came home 18th.

NASCAR returns to action in real life on Sunday, May 17 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, with the fifth of 36 planned NASCAR Cup Series events and the first race since mid-March, before the COVID-19 shutdown.

The results:

1. 11-Denny Hamlin [9], 2. 66-Timmy Hill [25], 3. 31-Tyler Reddick [3], 4. 6-Ross Chastain [8], 5. 3-Austin Dillon [11], 6. 51-Garrett Smithley [6], 7. 15-Brennan Poole [15], 8. 77-Parker Kligerman [10], 9. 4-Kevin Harvick [13], 10. 89-Landon Cassill [12], 11. 52-JJ Yeley [21], 12. 14-Clint Bowyer [29], 13. 21-Jon Wood [22], 14. 95-Christopher Bell [26], 15. 8-Dale Earnhardt Jr. [5], 16. 41-Cole Custer [1], 17. 53-Joey Gase [28], 18. 24-Jeff Gordon [23], 19. 18b-Bobby Labonte [16], 20. 19-Martin Truex Jr. [14], 21. 17-Chris Buescher [24], 22. 20-Erik Jones [17], 23. 18-Kyle Busch [20], 24. 38-John Hunter Nemechek [7], 25. 32-Corey LaJoie [4], 26. 10-Aric Almirola [19], 27. 37-Ryan Preece [2], 28. 34-Michael McDowell [27], 29. 13-Ty Dillon [18].

Lead Changes: Seven among five drivers

Lap Leaders: Cole Custer 1-12, Ryan Preece 13-31, Ross Chastain 32-40, Ryan Preece 41-53, Christopher Bell 54-114, Denny Hamlin 115-129, Ross Chastain 130-151, Denny Hamlin 152-160.

Laps Led: Christopher Bell 61, Ryan Preece 32, Ross Chastain 31, Denny Hamlin 24, Cole Custer 12.

Hard Charger: 66-Timmy Hill (+23)

Caution Flags: Eight for 53 laps

Time of Race: One hour, eight minutes, 24.411 seconds

Average Speed: 87.711 mph

Busch Pole Award: 77-Parker Kligerman, 17.829 seconds (126.199 mph)

Fastest Lap: 8-Dale Earnhardt Jr., 17.927 seconds (125.509 mph)