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It’s not race weekend, but I’m still grateful for what we have

Jeff Birchfield • Apr 5, 2020 at 10:45 AM

It’s nowhere as exciting as the real thing, but it’s the best thing we have in sports right now.

I’m talking about the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Food City Showdown at virtual Bristol Motor Speedway, scheduled to air Sunday at 1 p.m. on Fox and FS1. At a time when most sports on TV are replays of classic games, there is live competition.

Growing up, I always liked Super Bowl Sunday and watching the highlights of the previous games. For me, it’s hard to watch an entire sporting event that I’ve seen before and already know the outcome. For that reason, I find the virtual races much better.

Of course, it’s not race day for the Food City 500 at the actual Bristol Motor Speedway. There is always an energy in the pits that builds and builds before the drop of the green flag.

The weekend truly feels a celebration of American life. I remember a publicist from another NASCAR track in the press box a few years ago at Bristol. His line was, “We are promoting races. You have an event to come to.”

So the critics will say, “Yeah, but it’s not like it used to be. There’s nobody in the stands now.” They are right, the sport has taken a massive hit over the past dozen or so years and it has been most noticeable at the Bristol spring race.

While the Night Race has remained strong, the Food City 500 hasn’t been able to draw those same big crowds. It’s still the second most attended sporting event in the Tri-Cities region by a wide margin. Like most things in life, you appreciate it more when it’s gone.

I’ve missed the excitement of Bush’s Beans Pole Day, the Xfinity Series Cheddar’s 300 and the buildup to the Food City 500.

Personally, it has been much easier than normal race week. There have been a few stories leading into the virtual race, but definitely well short of what I do for an actual Cup Series race.

I do appreciate what everyone in the racing industry has created with NASCAR iRacing. I love the drivers’ enthusiasm for iRacing and their attitudes about entertaining the fans. Many of today’s drivers previously have been criticized about their attitudes toward the fans and, in many cases, it was justified.

It is one of the main reasons given for NASCAR’s declines in attendance and viewership in recent years. No one has captured the fans’ imaginations in the ways of Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin or Bill Elliott, They haven’t even come close to Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

With iRacing, Earnhardt Jr. is back in the driver’s seat and competing for wins. His last-lap battle with Denny Hamlin at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway was exactly what was needed to get it off to a roaring start.

In addition, the computer simulation looks good on television. It’s not the real thing, but you do get the feel of the side-by-side competition.

It’s great that drivers like Timmy Hill and Garrett Smithley, along with their sponsors, have their time in the spotlight. It’s also fun to watch how drivers like Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson have improved at iRacing in such a short amount of time.

While I would much rather be at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend watching the Food City 500 in front of packed grandstands, under the conditions I am thankful for the race at virtual BMS on my television set.

Thanks to the participation of the Cup drivers and the work of all those behind the scenes to make each event special in its own way, it is the best thing in sports at the moment.

Contact Jeff Birchfield via email at jbirchfield@johnsoncitypress.com.

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