HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Denny Hamlin gave the fans a show with his victory in Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series opener at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, stealing the honors from Dale Earnhardt Jr. with a last-lap, last-corner pass.
Utilizing fresher tires from a pit stop in the second half of the event, Hamlin chased down late-race leader Earnhardt, then made a lane on the outside after the white flag in the Dixie Vodka 150.
The second half of the race was largely dominated by polesitter Garrett Smithley and Timmy Hill, who drive for underfunded teams Rick Ware Racing and Carl Long Racing in the real-life NASCAR Cup Series, as a largely-even playing field developed through the race.
Smithley and Hill combined to lead from laps 68 to 95, when Earnhardt chased them both down and used six-lap newer tires to wrest the lead from Hill in the closing stages.
Hamlin’s tires were even fresher, however, and he ran Earnhardt down and went to the outside as the field flashed past the virtual flagstand to start the final lap.
It took three-quarters of the last circuit to make the momentum pay off for Hamlin, as Earnhardt was digging down low, but exiting turn four the pair banged doors and Hamlin raced to the finish line to collect the win, while Earnhardt ended up three-wide for second.
The official margin of victory for Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry was .152 seconds, and marked his 31st career iRacing victory in 164 career starts on the simulation service.
After his victory celebration, Hamlin noted that he wasn’t sure he’d have a shot at the win when he took tires and was mired in traffic, but his gutsy drive paid off in the end.
“I really wasn’t sure that we were going to be able to get back there (to the front),” said Hamlin. “With 10 to go, we were outside the top 10 and bottled up, but I was really able to make the top lane work over those last two laps to be able to make up ground and get the win.
“I felt we had about a two-tenth (of a second) advantage with tires, and those guys running side by side really did help me,” he continued. “There was a bit of an incident where I got pinched in turns one and two with about nine to go, and I didn’t think we’d get back there at that point … but my spotter Keegan (Leahy) kept telling me ‘you’re gonna get there.’
“I just tried to keep that pace all the way to the finish and it paid off.”
For Earnhardt, who finished second, he led his first laps in NASCAR competition since November of 2017 at Texas Motor Speedway and “had a blast” in his return to competition against the majority of the real-life NASCAR Cup Series field.
“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.”
And as for if he was going all-out in the final lap, Earnhardt gave the easy affirmative.
“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 it was just a fun race.”
Hill hung on to complete the podium, followed by NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Chase Briscoe and Smithley.
Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Preece, Ty Majeski and Erik Jones filled out the remainder of the top 10.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte, like Earnhardt, came out of retirement to compete on Sunday and finished 18th carrying the Bass Pro Shops colors of Martin Truex Jr. on his virtual No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry.
Meanwhile, pre-race favorite William Byron led the most laps – 28 – of anyone on the afternoon, but was caught up in several accidents around the mid-point of the race and ended up finishing 21 laps down in 34th place.
Of note, Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series opener was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter at one point during the race, which was broadcast live on FOX Sports 1 with veteran commentators Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds on the call.
1. Denny Hamlin , 2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. , 3. Timmy Hill , 4. Chase Briscoe , 5. Garrett Smithley , 6. Alex Bowman , 7. Bubba Wallace , 8. Ryan Preece , 9. Ty Majeski , 10. Erik Jones , 11. Matt DiBenedetto , 12. Landon Cassill , 13. Parker Kligerman , 14. Ross Chastain , 15. Joey Logano , 16. Clint Bowyer , 17. Ryan Truex , 18. Bobby Labonte , 19. Ty Dillon , 20. Justin Allgaier , 21. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. , 22. Austin Cindric , 23. Michael McDowell , 24. Chase Elliott , 25. Brad Keselowski , 26. Christopher Bell , 27. Austin Dillon , 28. Chris Buescher , 29. Kyle Busch , 30. John Hunter Nemechek , 31. Jimmie Johnson , 32. Anthony Alfredo , 33. Kyle Larson , 34. William Byron , 35. Kurt Busch .
Lead Changes: 11 among six drivers
Lap Leaders: William Byron 1-15, Denny Hamlin 16-28, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 29-38, William Byron 39-50, Timmy Hill 51, William Byron 52, Timmy Hill 53-60, Chase Briscoe 61-67, Garrett Smithley 68-91, Timmy Hill 92-95, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 96-99, Denny Hamlin 100.
Laps Led: William Byron 28, Garrett Smithley 24, Denny Hamlin 14, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 14, Timmy Hill 13, Chase Briscoe 7.
Caution Flags: Nine for 42 laps
Margin of Victory: .152 seconds
Averaqe Speed: 104.326 mph