Hamlin wins final eNASCAR Pro Invitational race at virtual North Wilkesboro

NORTH WILKESBORO, NORTH CAROLINA - MAY 09: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) (Editors note: This image was computer generated in-game) Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Delivering Strength Toyota, celebrates after winning the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series North Wilkesboro 160 at virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway on May 09, 2020 in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Denny Hamlin finished where he started. Hamlin bumped past Ross Chastain with 9 laps to go and won the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series race at a virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway Saturday.

Hamlin won the first race of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series at Homestead-Miami Speedway in March. The virtual series was based on the iRacing series owned by NASCAR and was used to fill the void left when NASCAR, and all major pro sports around the world, were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The return to North Wilkesboro was a nostalgic way to end the series. NASCAR hasn’t competed at the western North Carolina short track since 1996. The real facility had grown into disrepair, but last year Dale Earnhardt Jr., a NASCAR history buff and accomplished iRacer went to the track with a group and cleaned it up so it could be scanned for use on the iRacing platform.

Saturday the fruits of his labor was on network TV for all to see.

The .625-mile short track was known for a great deal of hard racing, and Saturday was no exception.  Cole Custer led from the pole after the top 10 were inverted.

The first caution came out on lap 13 when Hamlin and John Hunter Nemechek got together. The duo had a similar meeting last week at Dover.

Ryan Preece was among the early leaders and held the top spot until the second caution on lap 30. Chastain stayed out and inherited the lead, however Preece fought back to the top spot a few laps later.  The leaders dove down during another caution on lap 53 with Christopher Bell and Earnhardt Jr. taking the top spots as they stayed out.

After another flurry of cautions, the final third of the 160 laps had longer green flag runs.  The final yellow set up a restart with 15 laps to go. Chastain and Timmy Hill were the front row when the green flag waved, but Hamlin passed Hill to take second with 12 laps to go. Chastain’s No. 6 Ford then got loose with nine laps to go, allowing Hamlin to take the lead and the win.

Hill held on for second. Tyler Reddick came in third, while Chastain finished fourth. Austin Dillon completed the top five.

“I knew we had the fastest car. Just getting through traffic, got in that early incident and had to use my ‘fast repair’ right off the bat, do that wasn’t advantageous for us but we were able to methodically make our way back up to the front,” Hamlin said. “I took the lead there on that long run – had a great battle with Christopher (Bell). I wanted to control the race but I definitely didn’t think those two tires would hang on as good as they did. We didn’t have as many laps toward the finish that I thought we’d have.

“I got a good restart, got to third, was able to get to Timmy (Hill) pretty quick and once I got to Ross (Chastain). He tried to cut down and we were just battling right there. That was a great finish there. It’s just two guys going for the same spot.”

Earnhardt got caught up in an incident late and faded, ending what looked to be a solid top-five run finishing 15th.  Other notable finishes included Jon Wood in 13th, Jeff Gordon, who won the last race at North Wilkesboro in 1996, was 18th.  Martin Truex Jr., in his first and only Pro Invitational Series start finished 20th.

Austin Dillon, Brennan Poole, Parker Kligerman, Kevin Harvick and Landon Cassill rounded out the top-ten.

NASCAR returns to live racing next Sunday May 17 at Darlington Raceway with live coverage starting at 3:30 p.m. on Fox Sports.