By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished third at Michigan International Speedway – in a virtual INDYCAR.
You’ve read that right. The two-time Daytona 500 champion had enough fuel to bring his No. 3 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet home in one piece in Saturday’s Chevrolet 275.
“I really appreciated the invite. I think I need to do a better account of myself as far as just showing some pure speed. I wasn’t really able to show it today,” Dale Jr. on his debut sim open wheel race. “We had a pretty good car in practice and had good speed in all the practices. I felt pretty confident going into the race, but wasn’t really able to show what we can do.”
The road to a podium was thanks to Dale Jr.’s team spotter/strategist Steven Steffen, who told him that he was a lap to the good of making it on a single pit stop.
Before the quiet yet noble performance, the 18th place starter sustained a little front damage from the gob-smacking start on the frontstretch that brought horrid flashbacks to the 1996 U.S. 500 as several cars crashed before taking the green flag.
“The start of the race was a little bit odd. We’ve been starting much quicker and earlier off of Turn 4 in our practice races,” said Dale Jr. “The rest of the field were anticipated going around that same area, but the leaders (front row starters Marcus Ericcson and Will Power) chose to roll a little closer to the start/finish line.
“Everybody kind of got banged up and accordion into each other and someone ran into the back of me.”
Dale Jr. had back end damage, causing a really bad push on his car. It didn’t stop the two-time NASCAR Cup Series winner at Michigan from honing his own craft as he ran inside the top-15 throughout the race without ever using a quick fix.
However, Dale Jr. felt the start really clustered the pit strategies as dominant drivers Sage Karam and Will Power, who put on an absolute show all race long, couldn’t make it on fuel and were forced to pit before the race even came down to its final 10 laps.
With both drivers out of the equation, it opened the battle for the race win wide open as drivers were beginning to think that Dale Jr., the popular NASCAR figure, was going to steal one from the open wheel boys. It gotten so intense that Conor Daly said on his Twitch stream that if he were to outsmart them, it would be an embarrassing moment for INDYCAR.
Who responded to the “Dale Call?” The ever Goliath squad of Team Penske drivers Simon Pagenaud and Scott McLaughlin.
The duo were able to make it on fuel and were far ahead of Dale Jr. that a stunning upset was now out of the equation. Therefore, he had to settle for the last spot on the podium as Pagenaud, wearing his DXC Technology firesuit no less, scored the victory in the 85-lap event over in another Penske 1-2 finish in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge.
Dale Jr. understands that luck driven into his race and is aware that several drivers were upset that their strategy didn’t pan out as he too ran out of gas just after he crossed the line.
“I didn’t even know that we had fell into the strategy on fuel that we had. That became apparent as we started to think about taking our first pit stop. I was like, ‘Let’s split the race in half.’
“We ended up running out of gas as soon as we crossed the finish line. We ended up frustrating some guys because their strategies didn’t work out well. The best car, fastest car and probably the best sim racers didn’t finish where they should have, but I had a good time.”
Dale Jr. added that had he pushed it a little bit harder in the closing laps, a podium finish would’ve been out of the question as Kyle Kaiser, who was ahead of Dale Jr., ran out of fuel on the last lap.
“That’s how it worked out. I was playing with the fuel on the last run and if I ran any harder than I was running, then I was going to be short. Even as we got the white (flag), I couldn’t change what I was doing with the throttle to be able to get back to the checkered.”
Furthermore, Dale Jr. admitted that he was no match to McLaughlin as he struggled with managing his tires, notably on the right front, which caused his car to go tight and set him back pace wise.
“I wasn’t going to catch Scott,” said Dale Jr. “His car was working pretty good. He did a great job not only saving fuel but keeping his tires good. Keeping the right front on his car. When he took off, I might’ve tried a corner or two to see if I can keep up with him, but I was going to run out of fuel. So, there was no point.”
Being a crossover driver himself, McLaughlin said it’s been cool racing against with both INDYCAR and NASCAR drivers over the past three races after watching them on television for several years.
“I think it’s really cool to race people like Dale, like Jimmie Johnson, like people I’ve watched for many years in Australia,” said McLaughlin. “For me it’s really cool. For me to race against the INDYCAR guys is even a better treat for me, to learn how everyone races, who is aggressive, who is not aggressive, it’s quite interesting.”
Pagenaud was also pleased to have the NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee race with the top drivers around world. Not only that, just how he’s been humble about learning the ropes of open wheel racing’s most daring series as he hopes he’ll race another INDYCAR iRacing Challenge event.
“It’s really awesome to see him join us because he’s such a big name in racing. He can reach to so many more people than we do because he’s been racing for so many years at such high level,” said Pagenaud. “It’s pretty amazing to see the humility he has to come and race a series he doesn’t know, a car he doesn’t know.
“I know he’s been doing a lot of iRacing, but still what he did today is pretty amazing. I just really like him. I’m a big fan of him and his dad. I was of his dad. I’m just very happy that he joined us. I hope he can do more in the future because I think he’s having fun.
“I’m personally having a lot of fun racing him. It’s amazing to get to race your heroes.”
Next Saturday will be the fourth round of the series as the drivers have the say of which track they’ll be racing. Dale Jr. made it super clear that if it’s another oval, count him in to be a part of the madness as live coverage will again commence at 2:30pm EST on NBCSN.
“Definitely,” said Dale Jr. “Maybe, just maybe. It might be Daytona. It might be Indy. I’d never imagine racing against the real drivers in INDYCAR at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What a great trip that will be if I can pull that off in the next couple of weeks.”
What about the real deal? Dale Jr. said he probably wouldn’t as he knows that his driving days is over and isn’t sure if beyond 2020 he’ll even run NASCAR Xfinity Series races.
If anything else, Saturday’s sim race was a dream come true for him to run an open wheel as he had an overall fun experience.
“To have all the real world guys on the computer. That’s where I’ve been for two decades. This is awesome to have all these guys, whether they all 100% really loved and wanted to be there, it’s awesome that they’re all competing and we’re having these races broadcast on network television in front of so many people,” Dale Jr. on racing with the INDYCAR drivers.
“The reaction generally from the population and public is, Man, I’d love to have the real thing, but this is pretty good. I’ll watch this till we get the real thing back.
“I’m loving it. This is awesome. Dream come true. I never would have imagined this would happen in a million years, for there to be legitimate, in my mind, as far as sim racing goes, in that community and that bubble, legitimate racing with real world drivers. It’s pretty impressive.”