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Hamlin gets favorite’s nod for virtual race at Richmond

Jeff Birchfield • Apr 19, 2020 at 10:40 AM

Will those with extensive sim racing experience be virtually impossible to beat or will we see those who excel at a particular track win Sunday?

Those are the major questions heading into the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series event at virtual Richmond Raceway. The race is scheduled to be televised at 1 p.m. on Fox and FS1.

The winners through the three races at virtual tracks have been Denny Hamlin at Homestead-Miami, Timmy Hill at Texas and William Byron in the Food City Showdown at Bristol.

While Hamlin has experience in both iRacing and plenty of on-track success, Hill and Byron are still seeking their first wins in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Richmond has long been one of the drivers’ favorite actual tracks.

It’s three-fourths of a mile but wide with room for two-wide racing, and we’ve seen three-wide racing in the past. Richmond has lent itself to plenty of close finishes and for over a decade served as the final race in NASCAR’s “regular season” before the “Chase to the Championship” playoffs.

Hamlin stands out as a favorite for Sunday’s iRacing event at his home track.

Hamlin grew up just 21 miles from the speedway in Chesterfield, Virginia. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has three wins on the actual Richmond track and six top-five finishes in his past seven starts around the D-shaped layout.

Hamlin continues to further his claim as the best active driver in NASCAR without a series championship. He has 38 Cup Series wins, including three in the Daytona 500 and two in the Bristol Night Race, and has led 1,659 laps at Richmond, the most among any active driver.

His toughest competition could be Dale Earnhardt Jr., also a three-time winner at Richmond Raceway and runner-up to Hamlin in the first Pro Invitational Series race.

Earnhardt — who is likely a shoo-in for the 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame class — has showcased his skills through the virtual racing format. In addition to his runner-up finish at Homestead-Miami, Earnhardt made his IndyCar iRacing debut a week ago and earned a third-place finish at virtual Michigan.

Three NASCAR champions also have multiple wins at the real Virginia track.

Two-time and defending Cup Series champion Kyle Busch is a six-time Richmond winner, sweeping races there in 2018. Seven-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson is a three-time winner and 2018 champ Joey Logano has two wins.

Busch and Johnson have shown much improvement in sim racing. In fact, Busch came up through the field twice at virtual Bristol before getting wrecked late in the Food City Showdown. That performance opens the door for a driver with real-world success to beat the more experienced sim racers at their own game.

So far, the sim racers have enjoyed an advantage.

Byron has been quick everywhere, which isn’t a surprise. He won five pole positions on the actual circuit in 2019 but is generally viewed as the best of the iRacing drivers. He got his racing start on a simulator and his win at virtual Bristol was the 293rd overall.

Hill is easily the best sim racer statistically. He has 674 wins in 1,677 starts — meaning he wins over 40% of the time.

Other drivers with over 1,000 iRacing starts include Byron, Garrett Smithley and Christopher Bell, who recently won a simulated World of Outlaws sprint car race at virtual Charlotte Motor Speedway dirt track.

After Hill and Byron, drivers with over 100 iRacing wins include Bell with 237, Earnhardt with 194 and Smithley with 146.

Earnhardt boasts the best winning percentage in iRacing at over 46%, followed by Hill.

Bubba Wallace ranks third, winning over 27% of the races he’s entered. Matt DiBenedetto and Michael McDowell round out the top five with each winning nearly a quarter of the virtual races they’ve driven.

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