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Will virtual Talladega mirror ‘big bad’ of actual track?

Jeff Birchfield • Apr 26, 2020 at 10:30 AM

Drivers with extensive virtual racing experience have outperformed those with greater on-track success through the first four races of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series.

William Byron has been the dominant driver lately, winning the past two races on the virtual short tracks of Bristol and Richmond. The question is whether he can survive the “Big One” at virtual Talladega; the real Alabama track, after all, is known for its spectacular multicar accidents.

In the NASCAR Cup Series, Talladega is the ultimate wild-card race. Winners there include Ron Bouchard, Phil Parsons, Bobby Hillin Jr. and Richard Brickhouse and, all told, 11 drivers got their first career wins at the Alabama racetrack.

The question at the moment is whether anyone can stop Byron in iRacing. The driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet would likely have three straight wins if Timmy Hill hadn’t bumped him out of the lead late at virtual Texas.

Hill, a journeyman in the Cup Series, has gotten positive publicity through his success in the Pro Invitational Series. Despite that, he got the bad news Monday that his entire No. 66 MBM Motorsports team was laid off because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The other series winner is Denny Hamlin, an experienced iRacer but also a driver with plenty of on-track success, including three Daytona 500 victories and 38 Cup wins overall. Hamlin has two wins at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he won the virtual race in the Pro Invitational Series opener.

The simulated racing has given retired drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Greg Biffle a chance to compete once again. Earnhardt finished as runner-up in the opening race and came home third in an IndyCar iRacing event at virtual Michigan.

Sunday’s iRace gives him another chance to shine.

Talladega was the third-generation driver’s best track on the NASCAR circuit. His six wins there are tied with Gordon for second all time, behind only the 10 by Earnhardt’s father.

Gordon is making his iRacing debut Sunday. While a true rookie in the virtual world, Gordon is a four-time NASCAR champion and ranks third on the all-time Cup wins list with 93 victories.

Other Cup champions have shown steady improvement in the Pro Invitational Series despite limited virtual racing experience.

Two-time and defending NASCAR champion Kyle Busch was fast at both virtual Bristol and Richmond. He had the result to show for it, a top finish, at virtual Richmond. Like Gordon, he had never competed in sim racing before the Pro Invitational Series.

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR champion, also has shown to be a fast learner with eight wins in 33 iRacing starts. He upgraded his rig before the Richmond event, and he ran as high as third before finishing 10th.

Keselowski is another accomplished driver at the real Talladega track, having won five times on NASCAR’s largest speedway.

Joey Logano, a three-time Cup winner at Talladega and a Keselowski teammate, is racing Sunday. Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer have two Talladega wins, and Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott each own one victory.

Another wild card this weekend could be Parker Kligerman, who has a NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series win at actual Talladega driving for Abingdon-based Henderson Motorsports. He finished third in the virtual Richmond race.

It appears virtual Talladega is as unpredictable as a race at the real Talladega.

Sunday’s iRace is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Fox and FS1.

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