By Holly Cain
NASCAR Wire Service
William Byron became the first multi-time winner of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series – holding off Timmy Hill by a mere .256-seconds at the virtual Richmond Raceway Sunday afternoon. It was Byron’s second consecutive win in the series – answering a victory at iRacing’s virtual Bristol Motor Speedway two weeks ago just before the Easter off-week.
It certainly reaffirmed Byron’s position as the heralded master of the iRacing tournament among NASCAR Cup Series regulars. He has dominated in total laps led (319) in the four iRacing events in his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and on Sunday was easily the class of the field, holding the point for 94 laps of the 154-lap race.
Parker Kligerman, Landon Cassill and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch rounded out the Richmond top five. Denny Hamlin, who won the inaugural Pro Invitational Series event at Homestead, finished sixth followed by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bubba Wallace and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 10 – the highest finish for both Keselowski and Wallace to date.
Despite several new entries this week, the Richmond race had the very real competitive feel NASCAR fans have come to expect at the 7/8-mile oval.
And Byron, who got his competitive start in iRacing years ago, again put on a master class – holding off a group of competitors with fresher tires on a final race re-start with three laps to go.
“I didn’t really know how that was going to work out, but luckily we were able to have a little bit of buffer to the guys with four tires, and then the late restart, just executed that well,’’ Byron said. “It was fun. Really enjoyed it. To go back‑to‑back is really cool. Having fun with it while we’re kind of in a hiatus here, but looking forward to getting back to real racing soon, too.’’
Tight re-starts, dramatic collisions and important strategy calls are all something fans are accustomed to at the Richmond short track. And they were important elements of Sunday’s race – even in this virtual competition.
Matt DiBenedetto was parked late in the race after iRacing officials disapproved of avoidable contact he made – crashing Ryan Preece in the waning laps. It was a tough ending to a promising day for Preece, who held a virtual “meet and greet” with his sponsors and fans prior to the green flag and was the only other driver to lead multiple laps – his No. 37 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet pacing the field for 59 lap; second only to the race-winner.
One of the day’s most impressive runs came from Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski who kept his No. 2 Ford among the top 10 for much of the race before a pit road miscue forced him to play catch-up again in the final laps. It was only Keselowski’s 34th iRacing start compared to Byron, for example, who has more than a thousand.
Top-10 finishers such as Kyle Busch, who finished fifth after starting 27th along with Jones (who started 24th) and Wallace (who started 28th) had to feel a strong sense of accomplishment on the afternoon.
Ultimately, strategy played a decisive hand in the dramatic final stretch to the checkered. A caution period with three laps remaining created an urgency for Byron. He had to hold off Hill – whose No. 66 Toyota was on fresher tires – in those frantic last laps.
And Byron and Hill have a virtual “history.” Byron was leading at Texas Motor Speedway when Hill moved him on a late race restart to snatch the victory. On Sunday, it was just a clean fair sprint to the checkered.
“He raced me really clean; I was really thankful for that,’’ Byron said. “We’ve had some good races, honestly. Texas, obviously I was frustrated with Texas, but if I would have been in his position, I probably would have done the same thing, looking back on it.
“I think he’s done a really good job showing how consistent he is. I feel like he’s got good race craft, and I enjoy racing with him. I know what to expect when I race with him, that he is going to use the bumper, so I just have to race him back that way, and I think we both understand that.
“Fortunately I had just enough speed to kind of keep my gap there and win that race.
Hill, the only driver with top-3 finishes in all four eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series races, tweeted following the race that he was pleased with the effort, and like so many, already eagerly looking forward to the Talladega Superspeedway virtual high banks, where the series races next Sunday.
“Just came up a little bit short there at the end,’’ Hill said on Twitter. “Congratulations to @WilliamByron on the win! Looking forward to a bunch of fun at Talladega next week.’’