A sudden call-up by Penske for Timmy Hill to replace Brad Keselowski in its line-up for the 2021 NASCAR Pro Invitational Series has offered a swift resolution – or at least a deferral – to a controversy that threatened to overshadow the first race of its second iRacing mini-series.
The Pro Invitational Series was a massive success at the initial peak of COVID-19 lockdown last year, offering a well-balanced blend of entertainment and serious racing action when the real-world racing was completely on hold.
Many a championship had a go at hosting virtual stand-in events, and many succeeded, but NASCAR’s offering seemed to act as a benchmark in terms of both action and presentation.
However, the 2021 return of NASCAR’s real-world driver contest on iRacing hit an immediate snag, with news that Hill – a standout performer in the original virtual series the year prior – and his MBM team weren’t entered in the first round.
Compete in every cup event the last 2 seasons and the only cup driver that was left out… stings a bit. https://t.co/EGMI4NuNey
— Timmy Hill (@TimmyHillRacer) March 23, 2021
The 28-year-old Hill, a real-life NASCAR full-timer for the small Carl Long-owned MBM Motorsports outfit since 2020 in the Cup series, has been consigned to running at the back in NASCAR’s top echelon across his career, boasting only three top-20 finishes in 133 career starts.
But with his iRacing win count well in the hundreds, last year’s pro driver series allowed him to be a bona fide NASCAR frontrunner for several weeks – as Hill scored a win and five more top-three finishes in its seven races and emerged as the Pro Invitational Series’ unofficial champion.
The 2021 edition of the Pro Invitational Series is to kick off at Bristol dirt track – in anticipation of the NASCAR Cup series’ first-ever race at the venue – on late Wednesday, but the provisional 37-car entry list caused a big stir due to Hill’s absence.
Aside from invites for retired past Cup race winners Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr, the rest of the grid was apparently filled out through the charter system, which in real life allows those in possession of a charger to be guaranteed a place on the grid, eliminating the risk of non-qualifying that the non-chartered teams face.
Though Hill is a regular on the NASCAR grid, the MBM team is non-chartered, and therefore was not granted entry. Hill, however, has made it clear he did not expect this, taking to Twitter to express his disappointment and giving an interview to news website Frontstretch in which he said the team had “game-planned around that event” and “purposely ran all the races this year just so we could meet the criteria we thought that we had to make”.
Hill’s absence caused a big stir on social media, with NASCAR’s Twitter account receiving a barrage of comments relating to the topic, a Change.org being set up and and #LetTimmyRace ending up among Twitter’s trending topics.
Beyond Bowyer and Earnhardt Jr, the entry list did feature two drivers who don’t race chartered Cup entries in real life, with Austin Cindric and Ryan Preece replacing Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick respectively – as the two past Cup champions elected not to compete.
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) March 24, 2021
Preece is managed by Harvick’s KHI Management company but will race the JTG Daugherty #37 in the event, rather than Harvick’s #4 Stewart-Haas car. Cindric, meanwhile, was poised to run in Keselowski’s usual #2 Penske entry.
However, Cindric – a champion of the second-tier NASCAR Xfinity series and its current championship leader – hinted on Twitter on Wednesday that he would be looking to cede his seat to Hill, with Keselowski and the Penske team giving their blessings to the swap.
A few hours later, Hill confirmed he would be taking up the offer.
What this means for the other nine races of the Pro Invitational Series remains unclear, however, with NASCAR yet to publicly address the situation.
The people have spoken.
— Team Penske (@Team_Penske) March 24, 2021