DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 12: William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta 'Color of the Year' Chevrolet, speaks with the media during the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 Media Day at Daytona International Speedway on February 12, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

William Byron spoke about NASCAR’s possible return to (real) racing after capturing his second straight iRacing Pro Invitational Series win.

Geoff Magliocchetti

Between the premiere of The Last Dance and the No. 24 Chevrolet dominating the NASCAR circuit, sports have returned with a decidedly late-1990s flair.

NASCAR’s virtual endeavors continued on Sunday, with the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series returning after a one-week hiatus. Richmond International Raceway was the weekend’s pixelated venue for the Toyota Owners 150.

William Byron took checkered flag honors for the second consecutive Pro Invitational event, holding off Timmy Hill in a four-lap shootout for the win. The Charlotte native is the current driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ famed No. 24 car vacated by the retired Jeff Gordon in 2015.

The final stanza was set up by a late wreck involving Christopher Bell and Ryan Blaney. Byron and a select few opted not to pit on another caution prior to the final third of the race. His fellow risk-takers (including Bell and Erik Jones) had faded, but he had taken a commanding lead before the virtual yellow flag was waved.

The image of Hill chasing down Byron was quite familiar. Three weeks ago in a Texas Motor Speedway Pro Invitational event, Hill bumped Byron out of the way to win the O’Reilly Auto Parts 125. 

Byron acknowledged his fellow iRacing veterans and praised the way he has run races cleanly.

“He raced me really clean. I was really thankful for that, Byron said in a postrace conference call. “Obviously I was frustrated with Texas, but if I would have been in his position, I probably would have done the same thing, looking back on it. I think he’s done a really good job showing how consistent he is. I feel like he’s got good race craft, and I enjoy racing with him. I know what to expect when I race with him, that he is going to use the bumper, so I just have to race him back that way, and I think we both understand that.”

NASCAR has staged the Pro Invitational Series through the iRacing simulator since its 2020 circuit was put on hold in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Byron is slowly becoming the face of the series after consecutive wins. He dominated the Food City Showdown at Bristol Motor Speedway’s recreation on April 5 to secure his first win.

Byron was pleased that he and his fellow drivers are continuing to provide a sense of normalcy to the American sports fan with live sports shut down until further notice. The events began on March 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I think that it gives us a chance to show the world what racing is all about. Hopefully, we’re bringing it good coverage and publicity,” Byron said of the series. “I think it’s really cool for us because we’re the only sport that’s able to do it and realistically show something that we can do. So definitely proud of that right now.”

Pro Invitational Series races have been broadcast on the networks of Fox Sports. Gordon has continued to call races alongside Fox’s long-time play-by-play man Mike Joy…from the appropriate distance, of course.

Rules and pit expert Larry McReynolds is also on hand, as is Clint Bowyer, who helps call races from his No. 14 Ford. Bowyer’s bad luck in the events has led to several humorous moments during the broadcasts.

Byron’s success in the circuit so far should probably come as no surprise. Sunday’s event was his 1,470th competition in an iRacing simulator, second only to Hill’s tally of 1,679. The Richmond victory was good for the 294th first-place and finish and his 700th in the top five.

Alas, success on the virtual asphalt hasn’t translated to the real world quite yet. Byron has been relatively consistent since entering the iconic No. 24 ride. He won the 2018 Cup Series Rookie of the Year Award and earned 13 top ten placements en route to an 11th-place finish in the standings last season. Byron also needed only 33 races, one full season, to capture an Xfinity Series title in 2017 (the Xfinity Series is equivalent to AAA-level baseball).

But he has yet to lead the final lap in a “live-action” Cup Series race. He’s appeared in the runner-up slot twice but has routinely fallen victim to bad racing luck. His most recent Cup season got off to a strong start, winning one of the Daytona 500’s qualifying races. A crash induced via contact from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 58 laps into the Great American Race wound relegate him to a dead-last finish of 40th.

The 22-year-old is hoping pixelated prosperity can become a reality once NASCAR gets the green flag to resume its season again.

“I think that this period of time has really kind of opened my eyes to some new things that I could try and some new methods and things like that. So, I’m really excited about that,” he said. “At the same time, the real car has slight differences here and there, so it’ll take some adaptation to get back used to the car, but I really like the method that we’ve used during this time, and I’ve just enjoyed kind of having a little bit of pressure on a race and having another way to practice that different than our normal race.”

Speaking of real racing, Byron was asked the question all professional athletes have inevitably asked at one point or another during this process: when can his respective sport come back?

Byron preached safety, hesitating to make any declarations about a return until “concrete” evidence and dates emerged. He did, however, remain optimistic, saying that real racing would return “sooner rather than later”.

“It’s tough for me to hear potential when it is and when not,” he said. “Honestly, I just try to tune it out a little bit just because I don’t know concretely when it’s going to be.”

NASCAR has repeatedly stated that it plans to run each of the remaining 32 races on the Cup Series schedule. Four races were run before the pandemic put a halt on proceedings.

Byron discussed the obstacles that would come at such an attempt. Midweek races and weekend doubleheaders at tracks that host two events are among the possibilities. Such races would likely be run sans spectators and with “skeleton” racing crews, limiting team members’ entry to maintain social distancing guidelines.

Optimism once again reigned from Byron.

“The team aspect of things is going to be difficult because those guys are going to have to turn cars around, and your shop efforts are going to have to be really exceptional to prepare good cars,” he said. “I think that, honestly for me as a driver, I’m just going to have to manage my time really well. I’m going to have to be in good physical shape but not be too worn out training too hard or anything like that.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing what that is like. I know our team on the 24 will do a good job of preparing and adapting to the circumstances, so I’m just looking forward to seeing how that plays out.”

NASCAR has its return tentatively scheduled for the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Until then, Byron is going to continue to try and carry the cause for iRacing. The Pro Invitational Series will host an intriguing event at virtual Talladega Superspeedway next Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FS1).

“It’s going to be wild. I think there’s honestly going to be some really good racing,” Byron teased. “I’m really actually looking forward to it because I feel like some guys will be really good at drafting. But at the same time, it’s going to be really interesting.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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