NASCAR Weekend Preview: Finish Line 150 at virtual Dover International Speedway

The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Finish Line 150 will take place this Sunday (1 p.m. ET on FOX where available, FS1 and the FOX Sports App) from the virtual Dover International Speedway where so many of the sport’s best drivers plan to continue this well-received and extraordinarily competitive offering for race fans.

The opening five events of this series have produced thrilling finishes, crowned new stars and been an overall upbeat racing alternative during this unprecedented pause in real-time sports action as the world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The special thing about this one-mile “Monster” of a track is the amazing resume this week’s field of drivers bring to the competition. Of the 39 drivers entered – 16 of them have won either a NASCAR Cup Series or Xfinity Series race at Dover.

The most recent real-time Dover Cup winner entered this weekend is Chase Elliott, who famously won the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race. Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch is the only multi-time winner in all three premier NASCAR series – with three NASCAR Cup Series, five NASCAR Xfinity Series and three NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series victories. NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte and current NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Dale Earnhardt Jr. have also won in both Cup and Xfinity series at the track.

Kevin Harvick is a two-time NASCAR Cup Series winner at Dover, most recently earning the 2018 Spring race trophy. He’s competed in two of the previous eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series events with a best showing of 12th last week at virtual Talladega Superspeedway after starting 24th on the grid. Although the 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion has a pair of simulators at home – one a Christmas gift for his young son Keelan – he said he really hadn’t used them much previously.

“It’s been a crash course in how to do all this and I’ve been able to get everything going and get up to speed and make it enjoyable now to where it’s not just trying to figure out what buttons to push or how to reset the wheel,” said Harvick, who drives the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

“It’s been a lot of fun.”

Competing in this series has been fun but also an eye-opener for Harvick and many of the veterans who did not use race simulators on a regular basis in the same way as the younger drivers have recently.

That includes Dover’s all-time best, 11-time winner Jimmie Johnson.

The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion is still looking for his first top-10 finish in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, but feels more optimistic with each race. Certainly competing at a virtual venue where he is certifiably best in the business is encouraging. As with Harvick, Johnson had little sim experience at all coming into this specially-developed series.

For Johnson it’s meant purchasing a new simulator, learning a new line of communication and essentially, getting comfortable with a new alternate reality, one that he says took a little getting used to.

“I belly-flopped so bad in the first event I ran that people were reaching out to me,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Dale Jr. actually sent me a text saying, ‘I know you need help. There’s a four-time Cup Series champion in iRacing that wants to help you and he knows what he’s doing. You should get in touch with him.’

Johnson did get in touch and has worked with his “driving coach” since.

“It’ll be cool this week” Johnson said. “The visual piece [to iRacing] is very accurate. But the frustrations I had at Richmond in the real car, I had in the fake car (laughs) so things do cross over. I’m hopeful I will have a good showing.”

The whole eNASCAR iRacing experience has been enlightening to many competitors. And, Harvick is certain that it may present a golden opportunity to draw in new NASCAR fans.

“For us, we’re very fortunate we have a platform like this to entertain our fans and stay engaged with our fans right now,” Harvick said. “The one thing I hope comes out of this whole process is that everybody has conversations about continuing to intertwine with them.

“When you look at the console side and iRacing and the benefit of having our fans watch their races, we benefit just as much from having their fans watch our races,” he continued. “How do we carry all those fans and cross-market those people to keep them involved in our sport.”

Certainly the racing has to be a huge draw. The virtual competition has been and remains essentially a showcase for several drivers such as William Byron, the only multiple winner in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series to date, as well as Timmy Hill, who has a win (at Texas) and four top-10 finishes in the five races to date. Neither has won in real-time at Dover, but Byron has led more laps than any driver in this eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series and his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is understandably expected to be the car to beat – again.

Denny Hamlin, who won the inaugural Pro Invitational race at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway is a former two-time Xfinity Series winner at Dover. Earnhardt – a three-race winner at Dover, has three top-10 finishes in the opening five series races, including a runner-up to Hamlin at virtual Homestead.

This week’s Dover race will be 150 laps and allow for one reset. There will be manual cautions and three attempts at a green-white-checkered flag finish. Two-lap, single-car qualifying runs will set the grid but the top 10 positions will be inverted. The top three finishers from last week’s Talladega race – Alex Bowman, Corey LaJoie and Ryan Preece – will start at the rear of the field.

The Saturday Night Thunder 125-lap feature from virtual Dover – featuring many drivers from the NASCAR Xfinity Series  and Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series competitions – will be held at 8 p.m. on Saturday with broadcast on NASCAR’s YouTube channel and The top six finishers in four heat races plus two drivers from the Last Chance Qualifier move to the feature. The top-five finishers from last week’s race – Landon Huffman, Josh Berry, Joe Graf Jr., Tommy Joe Martins and Spencer Boyd – will start at the rear of the grid.

Greg Engle