In these uncertain times where sports are — and should be — an afterthought, NASCAR has struck gold.
Thanks to its eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, a sport that has been struggling for several years to find new fans and TV viewers, as well as the all-important sponsors, is a hit. Last week’s virtual race from Texas Motor Speedway drew an esports record 1.3 million viewers.
But not everybody has been thrilled with the iRacing movement. It appears the key word in the series title is “invitational.” Several NASCAR Cup regulars, including Cedar Rapids’ Joey Gase, have not participated in the series.
“That’s the hardest thing,” Gase told the Charlotte Observer recently. “When possible sponsors and current sponsors are reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, why aren’t you racing in this?’ And there’s really nothing to say other than, ‘Sorry, I guess politics?’
“You don’t want to say that because that looks poorly on the sport.”
Cedar Rapids’ other NASCAR driver, Landon Cassill, is looking for sponsors and a full-time ride in “real world” racing, but has found new life in the eNASCAR series. He finished fourth in last week’s event and entered Sunday’s race ranked eighth.
There was a bit of good news for Gase this week, however. He ran in iRacing’s “Saturday Night Thunder” event and finished ninth. These races are for Xfinity, truck series, ARCA and other series regulars.
“Always want more, but will take it after having to race our way in from the last chance race,” Gase texted on Sunday. “Think there were a total of about 40 drivers, 24 made the A main.”
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While it’s not the “big leagues” of iRacing, it’s a start and the top-10 finish should get the attention of those who invite the pro series drivers.
“Still miss the smells, the vibration and the feel for the car in the seat of your pants,” he wrote in another text. “But we are all competitors and we get to compete now again.”
Gase also announced last week that he and Agri Supply will pay tribute to the great Bobby Allison during the running of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in September, assuming that race is held as scheduled. Gase’s car will have the red and gold color from Allison’s 1971 Southern 500 win.
Gase said, in a release, he was thrilled about the arrangement and called Allison a “true hero and legend in our sport.
“Darlington is one of those race tracks that you always get chills at when you drive through the tunnel. Ever since they have started throwback weekend, it has made everything more special and fun for both the teams and fans.”
All things considered, things are going well for the 27-year-old Gase and his young family. His wife, Caitlin, and twin sons, Carson and Jace, are well and home in Charlotte, N.C.
In the four races before the season shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gase had an average starting position of 34.8 and an average finish of 29.
He was disappointed with his 23rd at the season-opening Daytona 500, but felt good about the 29th in Phoenix, the last “real world” race held.
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“We’re beating all the guys we, realistically, should be beating,” he said, adding the Phoenix finish is “something we can build off.”
This is Gase’s seventh season in Cup races, but his first with Rick Ware Racing and his first full-time gig. Having something to “build off,” for one of the have-not teams in NASCAR’s top level, is what’s important.
“That’s key,” Gase said, “building off what we’ve done. I’m building trust in my crew chief and he’s starting to trust me.”
Gase spoke for all drivers — all athletes, really — when he said this “unexpected” offseason is “not fun for anyone.
“We want to go racing.”
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