NASCAR’s newest car met NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway Wednesday night in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series — and one of the sport’s most iconic cars brought home the checkered flag.
Erik Jones raced his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet from fourth place on a late-race restart to surge past Timmy Hill and Anthony Alfredo in the closing laps at the virtual Darlington Raceway — in the first outing for the NASCAR Next Gen car, unveiled just hours before the race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified on pole for the 120-lap event and looked like the car to beat early, leading through a rash of early cautions as drivers worked to become acclimated to a brand-new car for the first time.
The learning curve was a steep one as three cautions flew in the race’s first 21 laps, eating up many racers’ two available fast-repair resets — an instant fix to the car afforded to competitors in the sim-racing world.
Longtime iRacer William Byron snagged the top spot from Earnhardt on Lap 48 as the tires began to wear on the track “Too Tough to Tame.” It wasn’t long, however, before another caution flew and forced drivers to grapple with strategy.
Former Pro Invitational Series winner Timmy Hill became a competitor for Byron at the front of the pack, taking the lead after a caution for an Alex Bowman crash. The two iRacing veterans battled hard, but neither emerged as the clear favorite.
A caution in the closing laps set up for a mixed-bag strategy on a late-race restart. Hill elected to stay on track with old, worn tires; others, including Byron, chose to pit for fresh tires at the expense of track position.
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On the ensuing restart, NASCAR Cup Series rookie Chase Briscoe went for a spin on aging tires near the front of the field, collecting multiple race contenders, including Byron, James Davison and Anthony Alfredo.
Alfredo, who’s an iRacing regular, elected not to fix crash damage on his battered No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford. What’s Darlington without the classic stripe anyway?
On the final restart, Hill led the field to the green flag on his worn tires; Alfredo’s damaged machine followed. The two battled for the top spot, checkered flag in sight, until Jones surged to the lead in a daring pass on the track’s apron into Turn 1.
Jones, driving a throwback paint scheme honoring the late John Andretti, held off the field to claim his first-ever Pro Invitational Series victory. It was a surreal juxtaposition of NASCAR’s future-era car, painted in legendary Petty team colors at NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway, driven by one of the sport’s brightest young stars.
Alfredo came home second, while Earnhardt recovered late to finish third. Tyler Reddick placed fourth, and defending Cup Series champ Chase Elliott rounded out the top five.
The Cup Series stars visit Darlington — the real-world version — Sunday, for the Goodyear 400 on NASCAR’s Throwback Weekend.
The Pro Invitational Series makes its next stop at Circuit of the Americas on May 19.