NASCAR is expanding its iRacing presence beginning this weekend with Saturday's eNASCAR series for Truck, Xfinity and ARCA drivers. That will be followed by Sunday's marquee Pro Invitational race and a slew of other virtual races announced earlier this week.
Almost every day of the week, live racing will air on either Fox Sports or NBC Sports for NASCAR fans. NBC Sports' upcoming coverage will be particularly autosport-heavy since the network begins its "Racing Week in America" programming on Monday, which will include a mix of past IndyCar and NASCAR races, as well as a live virtual short-track series Monday through Thursday featuring Cup Drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
Those drivers will get a taste of short track driving this Sunday at virtual Bristol Motor Speedway for the Food City Showdown. The third race of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series -- a live iRacing series that has replaced Cup Series racing since the NASCAR season was postponed due to COVID-19 -- will feature 150 laps on the half-mile oval track.
Busch won last year's Food City 500, while Hamlin won the second race of the 2019 season at Bristol. Both Joe Gibbs Racing drivers will test their skills on the virtual version of the speedway this Sunday in a lineup that's expected to cap at 30 drivers. The final lineup has not yet been announced.
"These cars online here, they bounce off the wall way faster than they do in real life," Busch said. "So trying to judge how they ricochet and what is going to happen is hard to do. Last week at Texas, we got caught up in that first wreck."
MBM Motorsports driver Timmy Hill won last week's iRace at Texas Motor Speedway with a late-lap pass of William Byron. Ryan Preece and Garrett Smithley finished behind Hill in second and third place, respectively. This weekend is expected to be a challenge for all drivers, iRacing regulars or not.
"I'm a little more nervous than the other ones," Smithley said. "Bristol is tough. I did some testing and I definitely need a little bit of more speed right now."
Smithley said he thinks a good starting position will be particularly important at Bristol, so there will be an emphasis on the qualifying heat races, which run immediately before the race and determine the starting order.
"It's difficult to pass," Smithley said. "Virtual Bristol doesn't have the sticky stuff (PJ1) down on the bottom that they have at real Bristol now, so the line's up top."
There will also be some new faces entered this weekend, such as No. 2 driver Brad Keselowski, who tweeted on Friday that he will be joining Sunday's Pro Invitational lineup. With the new entrants and the first virtual short track, NASCAR fans can expect more cautions this weekend, which is why NASCAR and iRacing limited the field to just 30 drivers (there are typically 35 entered), according to drivers.
"It's going to be about track position," Smithley said. "It's a one group deal. And I think you're going to see some short-track beating and banging for sure."
Other "new" faces include a number of celebrity guests who will make an appearance for the event. Former NFL player and Fox Sports analyst Rob Gronkowski and WWE Superstar Mojo Rawley will serve as co-grand marshals. Entertainer Rita Wilson and NASCAR's Darrell and Stevie Waltrip will serve as prerace dignitaries from their respective homes.
The race will begin at 2 p.m. following two, 50-lap heat races to set the lineup. Coverage for The Food City Showdown begins at 1 p.m. Sunday on Fox, FS1 and the Fox Sports App.
(c)2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)
Visit The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) at www.charlotteobserver.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.