Dale Earnhardt Jr came out of semi-retirement to race again on Sunday in Atlanta. But this time, it was virtual.
Earnhardt Jr., along with NASCAR Cup Series drivers including Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace, William Byron, Justin Allgaier and Justin Haley all participated in an exhibition eNASCAR race which was streamed live on the PodiumEsports Twitch channel. Dubbed "The Replacements 100," the race also included eNASCAR competitors and luminaries, including three-time NFL Pro Bowler Kyle Long.
Fears over coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused worldwide cancellations of sporting leagues and events, including NASCAR, which halted race events in Atlanta this weekend and Miami the following weekend. Instead, "The Replacements 100" was held on the virtual version of the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The event came together in two days as a way to keep racing fans engaged.
"I was contacted by PodiumEsports on Friday, asking me if I was available to be part of the broadcast," said David Schildhouse, who was one of the commentators for the event. "I didn't know the magnitude of the event at the time, but I have been working with PodiumEsports for a year and a half, so I trust that they were putting together something that was significant, and I was right, 100%. Once I learned what the actual event was, I was instantly convinced that we were putting on something that could be potentially very significant for the community."
The event saw peak concurrent viewership on Twitch of 24,000, and 128,000 total viewers.
Josh Williams took home bragging rights as the winner. Williams is also a spotter for Ryan Blainey and Team Penske.
"It was really fun to be a part of. While there's a lot of people in the racing world that have iRacing [the sim racing software used to both practice and compete at top levels], it's not often that we're all in the same race," noted Williams to ESPN.
Earnhardt Jr. placed eighth.
The NASCAR Hall of Famer is no stranger to iRacing, having been involved with sim racing for over 20 years. He won the very first recorded race in what is now known as the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series back in 2010 at the virtual Daytona oval. His company, JR Motorsports, represents two competitors in the sim-racing esport: past champion Michael Conti and perennial contender Brad Davies.
In light of sports league cancellations around the world due to fears of coronavirus, many athletes have turned to video games and streaming. Several NBA stars have been streaming Warzone, the new Call of Duty Modern Warfare Battle Royale game mode. The Phoenix Suns simulated what would have been their next regular-season NBA game against the Dallas Mavericks.
"I would hope that what we were able to accomplish today demonstrates that we can put content out to race fans to enjoy in the absence of the real-life, on-track products," said Schildhouse.
The next NASCAR iRacing Series event, "Round 3: Homestead," takes place March 17 at 9 p.m. ET on the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway. The eNASCAR Coca Cola iRacing Series has a $300,000 prize pool with $100,000 going to the winner of the season.