Denny Hamlin wins Pro Invitational finale at virtual North Wilkesboro

Denny Hamlin’s bump-and-run virtual victory in the North Wilkesboro 160 at the historic North Wilkesboro Speedway on Saturday afternoon book-ended an impressive showing in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series for Hamlin, this year’s Daytona 500 winner. The race served as a competitive send-off for the resumption of the marquee NASCAR Cup Series next weekend at the very real Darlington Raceway.

Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, also won the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series inaugural race at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway seven weeks ago kicking off a fun, well-received series of virtual races as the sport took time off during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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This weekend, Hamlin had to nudge Ross Chastain’s car in the waning laps to take the checkered flag, holding off one of iRacing’s best, Timmy Hill, by 0.914 seconds to claim a dramatic second win. Hamlin joins Hendrick Motorsport’s William Byron, a three-time race winner, as the only two multi-time race winners during the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series competition.

“Talk about a bump-and-run, it’s a textbook way to do it, move him out of the groove, but you don’t wreck him,” Hamlin said of his battle with Chastain, who spun Hamlin in retribution on the virtual cool-down lap.

NASCAR Cup Series rookie and Richard Childress Racing driver Tyler Reddick finished third. Chastain rallied to fourth, and Austin Dillon out-dueled another iRacing star, Garrett Smithley, for the fifth position.

Smithley, Brennan Poole, Parker Kligerman, Kevin Harvick and Landon Cassill rounded out the top 10 in what was a high-action day at the historic venue’s iRacing debut. The race was essentially made possible by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led the charge in getting the .625-mile oval on the iRacing platform, which opened it up for its first-ever competition Saturday.

Earnhardt finished 15th, and NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, who won the last NASCAR Cup Series race at North Wilkesboro on Sept. 29, 1996, finished 18th.

It was a busy day at the track, with eight caution periods for 53 laps. NASCAR Cup Series rookie Christopher Bell led a race-high 61 laps, finishing 14th in the Leavine Family Racing Toyota. Chastain led 31 laps, and Hamlin was out front for 24 of the 160 laps.

Hamlin conceded getting the last win heading back into regular-season competition was a boost in confidence. Prior to the break in action, Hamlin had already earned his third Daytona 500 victory in the season opener and is ranked 11th in the championship points standings with his NASCAR Playoffs ticket already punched.

“I can only speak for me, but yeah, sure, I’m way more excited than if I wouldn’t have won,” Hamlin said. “Winning the last iRace, the first and the last one, it’s significant. We have millions of people watching. It’s good publicity for my sponsors. It’s good for me and my confidence.

“We know, every driver knows, that everything is equal. There is no advantage for anybody. It’s about who can hone their craft in iRacing. … It’s not like playing Madden or NBA 2K where you’re using your hand-eye coordination pushing the buttons. You’re using the gas, brakes, running two at the same time, steering wheel. Everything is the same. I take pride in that.”

Hill, who started 25th in the 29-car grid, earned his sixth top-three finish in the seven eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series events.

“Well, it’s been a fun experience, we had the best average and capped the finish off finishing second at North Wilkesboro,” Hill said. “We can’t wait to get back to racing at Darlington next week. I’ve really enjoyed what this was but can’t wait to get back to driving what we normally do.”

Regular competition resumes at the venerable Darlington egg-shaped oval May 17 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a 400-miler. Kevin Harvick, who finished ninth Saturday, leads the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings by a single point over Joey Logano, whose already won twice in the four races to date.

Hamlin was, as one may anticipate, extremely eager to get racing again. No fans will be allowed at Darlington, and there are strict social distancing standards applied to teams, drivers and crews. But Hamlin is optimistic the racing will be as good and compelling as ever.

“I think all-in-all it’s going to be like an old shoe,” Hamlin said. “I don’t think from the TV’s perspective, fans will see anything different than just a normal race that they would normally see at Darlington.”

In addition to the NASCAR Cup Series race, the NASCAR action will continue at Darlington with a 200-mile NASCAR Xfinity Series race May 19 (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and a second NASCAR Cup Series event (500K) May 20 (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).