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NASCAR Drivers Return to the Track After Months of Intense Virtual Racing

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For the last couple of months, the COVID-19 pandemic forced nearly everything to close—including race tracks. But while in-person NASCAR events were on hold, many drivers were engaging in virtual racing to sharpen their skills.

Now, the top contenders, such as Kyle Busch, Joey Lagona, and Chase Elliot, will return to live racing on May 17.

Drivers Sharpen Their Skills in the Virtual NASCAR iRacing Series

Everyone, including professional race car drivers, was ordered to self-quarantine during the last two months. With people stuck at home and itching for something to do, NASCAR was able to draw in over a million viewers by turning to virtual racing and launching the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series.

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Posted by NASCAR on Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Participants in the series compete using the iRacing virtual platform. Even before the pandemic, many drivers chose to employ the iRacing simulation—with its laser-scanned tracks and physics-based models—as part of their regular training routine.

Because iRacing is so realistic, during the stay-at-home orders, NASCAR chose the platform to host its televised races. According to Car and Driver Magazine, the first race, which was broadcast on Fox Sports, attracted 903,000 spectators.

The second event was even more popular, drawing in 1.3 million viewers.

Virtual Racing Draws NASCAR Legends Out of Retirement

Part of the appeal of the eNASCAR Pro Series is that it has lured legends such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon out of retirement.

“Man, I’m going to give it a try,” Gordon announced back in April, during a broadcast of ‘Wednesday Night iRacing’ on Fox Sports 1. “We’ve been trying to get me behind the wheel of one of these sim rigs and I’m coming out of retirement boys!”

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series championship winner, Jimmie Johnson, also competed in the series—though the celebrity driver admits he had a lot to learn about virtual racing.

After placing fourth-to-last during the first simulated race, Johnson realized his e-racing skills were lacking. So, the real-world champion enlisted the help of Ray Alfalla—a four-time eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series champion.

Many people are unaware that iRacing runs its own championships every year, with dedicated drivers, a loyal fan base, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money. Alfalla, who is one of those drivers, now acts as a mentor to Jimmie Johnson in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series.

On race day, Alfalla worked alongside Jimmie’s real-world crew chief, Cliff Daniels, to coach the #48 car around a simulated race track.

Clearly, virtual NASCAR racing breeds its own type of excitement. Scott Warfield, NASCAR’s managing director of gaming, hints that the brand plans to remain engaged in simulation racing, even after live racing resumes.

“At the core of this whole concept, it was honestly about just trying to provide a rest for our fans in a very challenging and anxiety-ridden time in everyone’s life,” Warfield said, speaking to Car and Driver. “[But] we’d be foolish if we didn’t look at some of these numbers and think about what they could mean.”

nascar race cars
Everyone who enters the facility will be required to use personal protective equipment and follow social distancing protocols. There will be a mandatory health screening before entering the facility as well.

What to Expect When NASCAR Returns on May 17

Since the beginning of March, NASCAR has postponed several races, including the famed event at Talladega. Live racing will finally resume at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina on May 17th.

But the race at Darlington will be far from typical. There will be no concession stands, no infield parties—and no fans on the bleachers.

In addition to prohibiting spectators, NASCAR plans to forgo practice sessions and qualifying for drivers. Plus, everyone who enters the facility will be required to use personal protective equipment and follow social distancing protocols. There will be a mandatory health screening before entering the facility as well.

The initial race schedule will also be a departure from normalcy. Within an 11-day period, two different tracks, Darlington and Charlotte, will hold the first seven events. What’s more, five of those races will be held on weekdays (in the past, races were held exclusively on weekends).

“NASCAR and its teams are eager and excited to return to racing, and have great respect for the responsibility that comes with a return to competition,” said NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell. “NASCAR will return in an environment that will ensure the safety of our competitors, officials and all those in the local community.”

The 2020 NASCAR Race Schedule

Although the pandemic forced NASCAR to shuffle its schedule, officials say they still plan to hold 36 races. But race dates and locations are subject to change. You can find the current 2020 Cup Series schedule on the NASCAR website.

Race NameLocationDate / TimeBroadcaster
February 2020
Busch Clash at DAYTONASunday, Feb 9
3:00 PM
Daytona International
Speedway
FS1, MRN
Bluegreen Vacations Duel 1 At DAYTONAThursday, Feb 13
7:00 PM
Daytona International
Speedway
FS1, MRN
Bluegreen Vacations Duel 2 At DAYTONAThursday, Feb 13
8:45 PM
Daytona International
Speedway
FS1, MRN
DAYTONA 500Monday, Feb 17
4:00 PM
Daytona International
Speedway
FOX, MRN
Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy LubeSunday, Feb 23
3:30 PM
Las Vegas Motor
Speedway
FOX, PRN
March 2020
Auto Club 400Sunday, Mar 1
3:30 PM
Auto Club
Speedway
FOX, MRN
FanShield 500Sunday, Mar 8
3:30 PM
Phoenix
Raceway
FOX, MRN
May 2020
NASCAR Cup Series Race
at Darlington Raceway
Sunday, May 17
3:30 PM
Darlington
Raceway
FOX, MRN
NASCAR Cup Series Race
at Darlington Raceway
Wednesday, May 20
7:30 PM
Darlington
Raceway
FS1, MRN
Coca-Cola 600Sunday, May 24
6:00 PM
Charlotte Motor
Speedway
FOX, PRN
NASCAR Cup Series Race
at Charlotte
Wednesday, May 27
8:00 PM
Charlotte Motor
Speedway
FS1, PRN
Kansas 400Sunday, May 31
2:00 PM
Kansas
Speedway
FS1, MRN
June 2020
FireKeepers Casino 400Sunday, Jun 7
2:00 PM
Michigan International
Speedway
FS1, MRN
Toyota / Save Mart 350Sunday, Jun 14
3:00 PM
Sonoma
Raceway
FS1, PRN
Kids Free 325Saturday, Jun 27
3:00 PM
Pocono
Raceway
NBCSN, MRN
Worry-Free Weather
Guarantee 350
Sunday, Jun 28
3:30 PM
Pocono
Raceway
NBCSN, MRN,
NBC Sports
July 2020
Big Machine Vodka 400 at
the Brickyard Powered By
Florida Georgia Line
Sunday, Jul 5
3:30 PM
Indianapolis Motor
Raceway
NBC, IMS Radio Network,
NBC Sports
Quaker State 400
Presented by Walmart
Saturday, Jul 11
7:30 PM
Kentucky
Raceway
NBCSN, PRN,
NBC Sports
Foxwoods Resort
Casino 301
Sunday, Jul 19
7:30 PM
New Hampshire
Motor Speedway
NBCSN, PRN,
NBC Sports
August 2020
Consumers Energy 400Sunday, Aug 9
3:00 PM
Michigan International
Speedway
NBCSN, MRN,
NBC Sports
Go Bowling at The GlenSunday, Aug 16
3:00 PM
Watkins Glen
International
NBCSN, MRN,
NBC Sports
Drydene 400Sunday, Aug 23
3:00 PM
Dover International
Speedway
NBCSN, MRN,
NBC Sports
Coke Zero Sugar 400Saturday, Aug 29
7:30 PM
Daytona International
Speedway
NBC, MRN,
NBC Sports
September 2020
*Southern 500Sunday, Sep 6
6:00 PM
Darlington
Raceway
NBCSN, MRN,
NBC Sports
*Federated Auto Parts 400Saturday, Sep 12
7:30 PM
Richmond
Raceway
NBCSN, MRN,
NBC Sports
*Bass Pro Shops NRA Night RaceSaturday, Sep 19
7:30 PM
Bristol Motor
Speedway
NBCSN, PRN,
NBC Sports
*South Point 400Sunday, Sep 27
7:00 PM
Las Vegas Motor
Speedway
NBCSN, PRN,
NBC Sports
October 2020
*Alabama 500Sunday, Oct 4
2:00 PM
Talladega
Superspeedway
NBC, MRN,
NBC Sports
*Bank of America
ROVAL 400
Sunday, Oct 11
2:30 PM
Charlotte Motor
Speedway
Road Course
NBC, PRN,
NBC Sports
*Hollywood Casino 400Sunday, Oct 18
2:30 PM
Kansas
Speedway
NBC, MRN,
NBC Sports
*Texas 500Sunday, Oct 25
3:00 PM
Texas Motor
Speedway
NBCSN, PRN,
NBC Sports
November 2020
*Xfinity 500Sunday, Nov 1
2:00 PM
Martinsville
Speedway
NBC, MRN,
NBC Sports
*NASCAR Cup Series
Championship
Sunday, Nov 8
3:00 PM
Phoenix
Raceway
NBC, MRN,
NBC Sports

*PLAYOFF RACE

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Author

Mia Bevacqua

Chief Mechanic at CarParts.com

Mia Bevacqua is an automotive expert with over 15 years of industry experience. She holds ASE Master, L1, L2, and L3 Advanced Level Specialist certification, as well as a bachelor's degree in Advanced Automotive Systems.

Throughout her career, Mia has applied her skills toward automotive failure analysis inspections, consulting, diagnostic software development, and of course, freelance writing. Today, she writes for companies around the world, with many well-known clients showcasing her work.

Mia has a passion for math, science, and technology that motivates her to stay on top of the latest industry trends, such as electric vehicles and autonomous systems. At the same time, she has a weakness for fixer-upper oddballs, such as her 1987 Chevy Cavalier Z-24 and 1998 Chevy Astro Van AWD.

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