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Cup Series makes virtual return to North Wilkesboro

Jeff Birchfield • May 6, 2020 at 4:15 PM

NASCAR fans have clamored for a return to North Wilkesboro since 1996, the year the Cup Series raced at the unique short track a final time.

Their wish will come true — at least in the gaming world — on Saturday when the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series event takes place at virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Great detail has gone in to making the track, a five-eighths-mile oval with a downhill frontstretch and uphill backstretch, as realistic as possible. Last fall, Dale Earnhardt Jr. led a group that went to the North Carolina short track and cleaned up the facility so the track would be able to be scanned for simulated racing.

The visit to North Wilkesboro will come on the heels of Sunday’s iRacing event at virtual Dover Speedway, which Fox announcers Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon called the most realistic Pro Invitational Series race so far.

A familiar theme emerged as William Byron scored his third win in four Pro Invitational races after passing Timmy Hill with seven laps to go. The veterans of sim racing have been the dominant drivers on the computer-generated tracks, but the other drivers appear to be closing quickly.

Christopher Bell, a rookie making his sixth iRacing Cup start, got around Hill for second place. Hill finished third and Erik Jones and Michael McDowell rounded out the top five.

Three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, winner of the first Pro Invitational Series race, finished sixth. Among the others, Knoxville driver Chad Finchum finished 22nd, Earnhardt was 26th and seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, who has a record 11 wins at the actual Dover track, was 28th.

The virtual race at North Wilkesboro brings a renewed interest to iRacing.

Gordon, a four-time Cup Series champion, mentioned in Sunday’s broadcast he might race at virtual North Wilkesboro. He won the last Cup Series race there, beating the late Dale Earnhardt by 1.73 seconds to win the 1996 Holly Farms 400.

For drivers like Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch, the iRace offers a chance to get the feeling of competing on a track they’ve only heard stories about.

Some of the younger drivers, including John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer and Byron, weren’t even born the last time the Cup Series raced at North Wilkesboro.

In its day, it was the closest track to the Tri-Cities outside Bristol. Its unique layout provided many classic battles, including between Richard Petty and Bobby Allison and a pair between Dale Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd.

The track hosted 93 Cup Series races between 1949-96. Petty, with 15 wins, was the most successful driver, and he had a stretch from the fall 1969 race through the spring 1977 event in which he finished no lower than third.

Darrell Waltrip collected 10 North Wilkesboro wins, followed by Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough with five each. Junior Johnson, whose shop was in the nearby community of Ingle Hollow, won four times as a driver.

Johnson won 18 times as a car owner, tied with Petty Enterprises for the most all-time. Waltrip, Allison, Yarborough and Terry Labonte all won multiple races driving Johnson’s cars.

Although a popular request is for racing to return to North Wilkesboro, the reality is the facility is in such bad shape that it would take a rebuilding project instead of a remodel to restore it.

While iRacing is helping to bring NASCAR to a new generation of fans while waiting for real racing to return, Saturday’s virtual race is a nice tip of the cap to the sport’s past.

KINGSPORT RACE POSTPONED

The Super Cup Stock Car Series made changes to its 2020 schedule, including the postponement of the May 15 race at Kingsport Speedway.

A makeup date is to be determined.

The changes also affected two Virginia tracks. What was supposed to be the season opener at Dominion Raceway was canceled altogether, and the June 6 race at Shenandoah Speedway was postponed.

The season is now scheduled to open Saturday, June 20 with the Indy Summer Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park.