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NASCAR Virtual Racing Has Had A Tough Week

Scott Dixon, five-time IndyCar champion and relatively new iRacing competitor, received a brief set of instructions from boss Chip Ganassi about the world of virtual racing.

2020 NTT IndyCar Series Testing
AUSTIN, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 11: Scott Dixon, driver of the #9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, hangs out during an NTT Indycar Series testing at Circuit of The Americas on February 11, 2020 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

"I did get a text from him that said 'Just lay low,'" Dixon said Friday.

What started as a fun way for racing leagues to fill time and engage fans during the sports shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic has taken a dark turn.

Kyle Larson was fired by Ganassi this week for using a racial slur during a virtual race. Bubba Wallace lost a sponsor for "rage quitting" the game a week earlier. And NASCAR's iRacing event this Sunday is drawing criticism after the series decided to trim the field of lesser-known drivers.

NASCAR Cup Series Penzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube - Practice
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 21: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet, stands by his car during practice for NASCAR Cup Series Penzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on February 21, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

The decision was intended to avoid the wreck fest of two weeks ago at virtual Bristol Motor Speedway. But it came at the expense of drivers such as Landon Cassill and Michael McDowell, who have sponsorship for the events and then learned they were not invited to compete on the virtual Richmond track. Retired star Dale Earnhardt Jr. even pulled out in an effort to give his spot to one of the excluded drivers, but it was clear the shine is wearing off.

NASCAR came up with a solution: A heat race Sunday morning for drivers not already invited, with the top two finishers eligible to compete in the nationally televised virtual race and two other drivers selected by broadcast partner Fox.

It seemed a fair concession for Cassill, who does not currently have a Cup Series ride. He has competed in the first three official NASCAR virtual races, hosted other virtual events and signed topical pain reliever Blue-Emu — the sponsor that dropped Wallace — as a backer.

eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series - Toyota Owners 150
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - APRIL 19: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) (Editors note: This image was computer generated in-game) Landon Cassill, driver of the #89 Blue Emu Chevrolet, races during the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Toyota Owners 150at Richmond Raceway on April 19, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

"The best thing that I've learned from this week is that my sponsor Blue-Emu is behind me 100%, and ultimately, that relationship is what will scale these iRacing events from the virtual world into opportunities in the real world," Cassill said. "That I have to qualify in this week is just another opportunity to prove myself as a racer."

It's become very messy in the month since NASCAR pivoted from real racing to iRacing, which has twice set esports viewership records on Fox and its cable channel. IndyCar launched a league with Saturday races now aired by NBCSN, and IMSA hosted a huge field of sports car drivers Thursday in a race that was streamed.

Virtual racing has become the only way for drivers to promote their partners during stay-at-home orders, and teams have recognized the value of having their drivers participate. But what started as fun became a very serious business and snowballed Sunday night when Larson used the N-word while trying to communicate with his spotter. Almost all of his sponsors dropped him the next day, and he was fired by Ganassi.

NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 - Practice
DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 15: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet, sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 15, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

IndyCar Series owner Roger Penske urged team owners to caution their drivers about their conduct while virtual racing — a message delivered after Penske driver Will Power had his stream muted by the service for calling Dixon a "wanker."

Drivers are now keenly aware of the stakes. The platform allows them to communicate with each other during the race, sometimes lighthearted and sometimes heated, and viewers can eavesdrop through the gaming app Twitch.

"We are drivers, we get frustrated, we want to be competitive," said Helio Castroneves, who will make his IndyCar iRacing debut Saturday at virtual Twin Ring Motegi in Japan as will reigning NASCAR champion Kyle Busch.

IndyCar iRacing Challenge - Firestone 175
MOTEGI, JAPAN - APRIL 18: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) (Editors note: This image was computer generated in-game) Helio Castroneves, driver of the #3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet, races during the IndyCar iRacing Challenge Firestone 175 at virtual Twin Ring Motegi on April 18, 2020 in Motegi, Japan. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

"Sometimes you've got to remember that a lot more people are watching, they can hear everything, your thoughts basically," he said. "You've got to remember that you represent a company, a team, mechanics, a lot of guys, sponsors around you."

NASCAR on Friday postponed its next scheduled, event, May 9 at Martinsville, Virginia, and is exploring racing at venues without spectators. IndyCar's next scheduled race is June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Until racing resumes, the virtual competition is all there is for drivers and fans. There is some sort of race streamed every night of the week and there are concerns fans will become bored.

eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Race - Food City Showdown
BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - APRIL 05: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) (Editors note: This image was computer generated in-game) William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, races at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 05, 2020 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

"The key word is oversaturation," said John Doonan, president of IMSA. "We did want to be smart with oversaturation and, frankly, end up where we're sort of following a similar schedule with some exceptions of cadence of when our actual races would be."

© 2020 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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