If you've heard this before — NASCAR Cup Series drivers will compete on the 0.625-mile oval that is North Wilkesboro Speedway in front of a live TV audience — you haven't heard it since 1996. Thanks to iRacing, NASCAR and Fox Sports, you're hearing it again in 2020.
The iRacing series NASCAR has used to bridge the gap in its 2020 schedule created by the coronavirus pandemic will conclude Saturday with what's easily the most anticipated virtual NASCAR race in the short history of virtual NASCAR races. With a start time of 3 p.m. ET and with Fox and/or FS1 as the TV channel, the North Wilkesboro 160 will broadcast live from the virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway.
The race at North Wilkesboro will be the seventh and final event in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro invitational Series, as NASCAR will return to real racing (without fans and under strict social distancing guidelines) next weekend at Darlington Raceway.
NASCAR raced at North Wilkesboro officially from 1949-96. After track founder Enoch Staley died in 1995, Bruton Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports, purchased 50 percent ownership of the track only so he could take one of its dates on the NASCAR schedule for a race at his new track in Texas. Bob Bahre purchased the other half and took the other date for his new track in New Hampshire. The 1996 Tyson Holly Farms 400, won by Jeff Gordon, was the last NASCAR Cup Series race North Wilkesboro Speedway ever hosted. It has since been neglected and left to erode.
So it's fitting that Gordon, now a race analyst for Fox, will compete in NASCAR's virtual return to the track.
"It’ll be hard to top my last race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, but I’m going to give it a try," Gordon said this week on Twitter.
Below is all you need to know to watch Saturday's virtual NASCAR race at North Wilkesboro.
NASCAR iRacing at North Wilkesboro: TV channel, start time for today's virtual race
Race: North Wilkesboro 160 at the virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway
Date: Saturday, May 9
Start time: 3 p.m. ET
TV channel: Fox (where available); FS1
Live stream: Fox Sports app
Fox Sports has broadcast the entirety of NASCAR's iRacing series while the pandemic has kept live racing off limits, and it has been a smashing success. The first NASCAR iRacing event at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 22 set a new record for an e-sports TV presentation with 903,000 viewers. The following race, at the virtual Texas Motor Speedway, smashed that record with 1.3 million viewers.
Because North Wilkesboro Speedway is the crown jewel of NASCAR ghost tracks, Saturday's race at its virtual rendition figures to draw the highest ratings for the series yet.
The virtual race at North Wilkesboro is scheduled for Saturday rather than Sunday because it corresponds with NASCAR's original 2020 schedule, which would have produced the first Saturday night race of the season on May 9 at Martinsville.
NASCAR iRacing lineup at virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway
Due to in part to his history at the real track, Gordon is the most notable driver on the entry list for Saturday's virtual race at North Wilkesboro. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led an effort to clean North WIlkesboro's racing surface in December so it could be scanned and added to the iRacing platform, also will race Saturday.
Other notables in the field are Martin Truex Jr., who is making his NASCAR iRacing debut, and Jon Wood, a third-generation member of the Wood Brothers Racing family who will race the No. 21 Ford in place of the team’s current NASCAR Cup Series driver Matt DiBenedetto.
As has been the case for all iRacing events, qualifying for the North Wilkesboro 160 will take place a little more than an hour before the race itself. It will feature a two-lap, single-car qualifying session with the top 10 inverted to set the grid for the race.
31 Tyler Reddick
Below is the entry list for Saturday's virtual race at North Wilkesboro.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Martin Truex Jr.
John Hunter Nemechek