Virtual victory at the Monster Mile: Byron displays iRacing dominance at Dover

Cars line up for a restart on lap 19 during the NASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series televised on Fox at the simulated Dover International Speedway on Sunday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — The grandstands were packed with NASCAR fans and the drivers in the prestigious Cup Series were roaring around the high banks of Dover International Speedway on Sunday — well, at least virtually — on TV.

In reality, on a day that was supposed to be the highlight of NASCAR’s spring tripleheader weekend of racing at Dover’s one-mile oval, the sprawling facility sat dormant and was quiet, with no fanfare, as race weekend at the track known as the “Monster Mile” was postponed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

However, through the computer-generated magic of NASCAR’s iRacing Pro Invitational Series, a simulated version of the Dover race took place on Fox Sports on Sunday — the Finish Line 150 — with drivers competing in shorts, no helmets and taking on the monster in the comfort of their own homes.

William Byron

Fittingly, it was Cup Series driver William Byron, who actually gained attention through his success while competing on virtual racing platforms, who captured the checkered flag at Dover by beating runner-up Christopher Bell to the finish line by about five car-lengths to win for the third time in six iRacing Pro Invitational Series events.

While Sunday’s virtual event at Dover will probably dissipate into history once NASCAR’s Cup Series leads all competitive sports leagues back into live action when the drivers return to compete in Darlington, South Carolina, on May 17, it proved to be a nice getaway for a couple of hours from these tedious COVID days of sheltering at home.

The upcoming race at Darlington, and several live events following that one, will take place without fans in attendance. The virtual race at Dover on Sunday appeared to have the largest crowd at Dover — albeit with computer-generated fans — since Dale Earnhardt Jr. recorded an unforgettable victory at the track following the 9/11 tragedies in September 2001.

Byron’s virtual victory at Dover was set up following a crash with 16 laps remaining when John Hunter Nemechek slid up into Denny Hamlin’s car coming off the fourth turn and caused him to crash into the outside wall. After Hamlin’s car ricocheted onto the front straightaway, his car was T-boned by Earnhardt, ruining both their days.

Byron elected to put four tires on his car during the ensuing round of pit stops and he fell to fourth place, behind leader Timmy Hill, who only took on two tires.

Cars crash on the back straight on lap 14.

With just seven circuits remaining, Byron chased down Hill and managed to pass him on the inside lane heading into the third corner under the Monster Bridge. He remained in the front from that point on, winning a miniature Monster Trophy at Dover.

“It was fun, we had to go on that restart (because) we had four tires,” said Byron, who drives the No. 24 Chevrolet made famous by NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon. “Unfortunately, the strategy made us know we were going to be back in the pack on that last restart, so it was just all about getting clear and once we got to Timmy I knew we had better stuff and just had to work him over for a couple of corners.

“But it was fun. I enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed this iRacing Series that we’ve had going, but I’m definitely ready to get back in my normal car as well, but this has taught me a lot in these last few weeks.”

Hill was able to pull off a third-place finish, followed by Erik Jones and Michael McDowell. Most of the familiar names that usually sparkle on the Monster Mile — such as 11-time winner Jimmie Johnson — had less than stellar days.

It was the young drivers more acclimated to iRacing that rose to the top. Hill, like Byron, is one of those young computer guns. At one point of the race he was seen driving with his cat Gigi in his lap.

Parker Kligerman gets spun out on lap 28.

“I wish I could have had a couple of laps where William (Byron) was coming up on four tires,” said Hill. “I knew as soon as he got clear of those (other) guys, I was a sitting duck with two tires. We came up short again. William’s done a great job throughout this iRacing Pro Invitational.”

Fox Sports’ broadcast of Sunday’s iRace at Dover came with all the trimmings – David Hasselhoff singing the national anthem, four A-10 fighter jets performing the pre-race flyover and country music star Blake Shelton serving as grand marshal and delivering the command for the drivers to start their engines.

TV commentator Gordon, a five-time winner at Dover, predicted a wild event before the green flag waved. He was right, as there were seven crashes.

“Man, this track will just chew you up,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a Dover race without the man himself, Jimmie Johnson, participating in it, but you can see those high-banked corners and it’s really treacherous and that’s why they call it the Monster Mile.”

Johnson has won an unprecedented 11 times in the Cup Series at Dover, but wasn’t nearly as successful on the computer platform. He was involved in a crash after spinning come off the fourth corner with 74 laps to go.

Cars restart on lap 18.

Several fans took to the internet and expressed their disappointment at not being able to take their usual places in the grandstands on Sunday at Dover.

“So sad!” Kaitlyn Ruhl wrote on Dover International Speedway’s Facebook page. “Would’ve been there for the cup race on Sunday… and it would have been my first NASCAR race to see in person! Always dreamed of going to one … every time my family goes to the Delaware beaches we pass the Dover racetrack. I take a picture of it every time!”

Sue Novak commented, “Last year was my son’s 1st time (at Dover) and it was rained out. This year, a pandemic. Hopefully, it will be a double header for the August race. If not, hope the 3rd year is a charm.”

Denny Hamlin during the NASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series on Fox at the simulated Dover International Speedway on Sunday.

This was not the weekend that Mike Tatoian, president and CEO of Dover International Speedway, was looking for, either.

It has been speculated that Dover will host a doubleheader of Cup Series races in August. If that’s the case, Tatoian cannot wait for live action to return to the Monster Mile.

“This is the antithesis of what we had last year when we had so much excitement and celebration – celebrating 50 years – to actually having an entire race weekend postponed, and now have to wait until August,” Tatoian said last Monday. “It’s certainly disappointing for us and obviously disappointing for our fans, but given the circumstances that we’re faced with, it is obviously the right decision.

“We’ll work through this and, hopefully, put on a great show in August.”