Talladega is always an interesting race weekend, whether it’s in real life, or in iRacing. Last weekend was no exception as the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series visited the 2.66-mile tri-oval. Meanwhile, an outsider dominated the show Saturday at the virtual Circuit of the Americas.
Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race at Talladega aired live on over 80% of FOX’s affiliates, including in two of the top 10 markets (Philadelphia and Washington). Pack racing means that shenanigans were sure to go down. How did things go?
The big news on Sunday was that Jeff Gordon was going to compete in the 70-lap (extended to 74 due to a green-white-checker restart). I didn’t like the fact that they decided that both Gordon and William Byron would both run the No. 24. That’s not a FOX problem. It’s an iRacing problem. I’d prefer that it doesn’t happen in the future.
The main issue that came from that move is the fact that Gordon has been an analyst alongside Mike Joy. Putting Gordon in the race means that no one would be there to partner Joy. Enter Michael Waltrip. I can hear a number of you groaning from here.
With Gordon driving, you had two in-race reporters with Gordon and Clint Bowyer. While it’s not perfect, you ended up with a situation where Joy called the race while Bowyer and Gordon chatted among themselves.
I have two takeaways from this whole dynamic. One is the fact that that both Bowyer and Gordon appeared to be having bucketloads of fun. We’re not necessarily talking about a giggly situation here, but they were enjoying themselves. I have no doubt that being in a race like Sunday’s would be fun. At least until Gordon got deposited into the catchfence.
It should be noted that Bowyer was already a bit nervous about Ricky Stenhouse Jr. being up there in the mix prior to the crash. You might remember what happened at Daytona back in 2018 when Stenhouse felt that he had to win to make the playoffs.
In this case, it was Stenhouse that got hit while racing for the lead. Just desserts, perhaps?
The bad side of all of this glee and FOX focusing on the glee is that I had trouble at times figuring out what was going on. That’s not a good thing. Admittedly, if I want to watch something like that, that’s what Twitch is for. If you want to watch Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s thoughts in real time during a sim race, you can. He’s on Twitch. Same with Denny Hamlin and a number of others.
It seems that there were some issues trying to work out what NASCAR wanted order-wise prior to the race. Originally, it was announced that the top 10 qualifiers were going to be inverted. Apparently, we’ve reached the early portions of the inaugural truck season when Mike Skinner was so much better than everyone else in qualifying. That would have put Daniel Suarez on the pole. That didn’t happen for some reason, so Corey LaJoie started first after winning the pole. I guess that inversions don’t work yet in iRacing. Given that there’s a decent amount of dirt racing on there now, it’s only a matter of time before you see it there.
The other decision that did work was NASCAR’s decision to make the top three finishers from Richmond (Byron, Timmy Hill and Parker Kligerman) start in the rear. You didn’t hear much from Hill until he got lapped under green. An eventual lucky dog allowed him to finish 11th. Byron and Kligerman both led laps. Seriously, I saw next to no coverage of Hill before he got lapped. I’m operating under the opinion that he got wrecked in the Big One (or Big Chungus, as it was described on Saturday Night Thunder).
Oh yes, the broadcast never covered just what the deuce happened to Hamlin. He had a multitude of problems that put him down laps. Then, his daughter came into the room armed with a remote control. That’s a DNF right there.
The race broadcast went long once again, but by less than the other races. Regardless, there was only time for a brief interview with winner Alex Bowman before FOX left the air.
In recent weeks, the whole idea of iRacing not really being fun anymore has been an issue. Kyle Larson’s stupidity is just one instance. There are series that are paying out real money now. It’s become quite serious. Outside of stuff like the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, it was never supposed to be like that. It’s supposed to be a way to kill time on a Sunday. Sunday’s broadcast seemed to go back in the other direction, but to the detriment of actually covering the action.
As for Waltrip, he was there, but not really there. He didn’t really chime in all that much and didn’t add anything to the broadcast. At the same time, he didn’t take anything away.
AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge
Saturday saw the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge travel to the virtual Circuit of the Americas for 32 laps of action. Compared to the past couple of weeks, this was a completely different race.
The big story of the week was that INDYCAR extended an invitation to McLaren Formula 1 driver Lando Norris to come and race in the series. That’s great to invite people from other series to come and have at it. Honestly, NASCAR should have done that for the Pro Invitational Series, but they have enough drivers from just their own national-level series that wanted in on it that it would have been difficult (remember, 65 drivers tried to qualify at Texas, resulting in the creation of Saturday Night Thunder).
Then, they started talking about how he’s been driving in iRacing since he was six years old and pounding that fact home. Norris turned six in Nov. 2005 and was at that age through most of 2006. I don’t know what he was playing back then, but it probably wasn’t iRacing. It didn’t officially exist yet at that point. The first release (essentially a beta) of iRacing was in Aug. 2008 and there wasn’t a stable release until Sep. 2009.
Regardless of this discrepancy, it didn’t take long for Norris’ iRacing skill to come to the forefront. He won the pole for the race by a rather significant margin knowing that the setups are fixed. Once the race started, he started pulling away from the field. In all honesty, Norris spinning out on his own just after the competition caution made this race quite a bit closer than it would have been.
That said, there was still some decent racing for position. The action towards the end of the race was pretty good. I enjoyed watching that.
Probably the biggest thing I noticed watching the race was just how slow the broadcasters reacted to what was going on. It’s noticeable. If I had to guess, I’d have to say that Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy are in a somewhat similar circumstance to us viewers. They’re watching the feed and reacting to what they’re seeing and there’s a delay. We’ll just have to deal with it, I guess.
Granted, I do have a DVR at my disposal here, but I was picking up on things before the booth was. Not great.
Post-race coverage was about what we’ve been getting recently. Unlike the Pro Invitational races, the INDYCAR broadcast is mandated to stay in the 90-minute timeslot. That’s why the races have been x laps or 75 minutes, even for the oval events. Thankfully, that hasn’t come into play so far, but post-race content has been cut.
Viewers were supposed to have interviews with the top three finishers after Saturday’s race. That ended up being cut to the top two (Norris and Patricio O’Ward). After that, NBCSN announced that the final race this Saturday would be held at the virtual Indianapolis Motor Speedway as opposed to a non-INDYCAR track. They’ve even thrown in what amounts to a 25/8 rule for the race. Qualifying is Wednesday and the race is Saturday afternoon. The championship is a dead heat between Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, with Scott McLaughlin 15 points back.
Overall, this might have been the least exciting of the five races so far. The commentary leg was really noticeable and did affect my enjoyment of the race. That said, there was some good racing to be had at times. Am I surprised that Norris kicked as much butt as he did? Not particularly. Had his sim racing buddy/clothing critic Max Verstappen been in his seat, the same thing probably would have happened.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series will be back in action at the virtual Dover International Speedway. It doesn’t currently show on NASCAR’s website, but believe me, it’s happening. Thanks to the simulators at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, it’s the only track that I’ve driven on in iRacing. It’s tough, dudes. I couldn’t put down a clear lap because I kept spinning out.
In addition, the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge comes to an end with the “Dream Race.” This was originally supposed to be a non-INDYCAR track. Well, as noted above, that’s not happening. Should be fun, though.
Old-school races available this week on FOX Sports 1 include the 1987 Winston 500 (unrestricted) at Talladega and the 1994 Brickyard 400. Additional TV listings are in the TV tab above. NASCAR’s streaming schedule is here:
Here's what's on deck across our digital platforms this week! ? pic.twitter.com/pQIZ4LLoKB
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) April 27, 2020
We will provide critiques of the Dover and Indianapolis events in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday. Once the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge is complete, then we’ll have a little more fun before the actual racing returns.
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About the author
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.
Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.
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