By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
A bid for a Team Penske podium sweep in Saturday’s Firestone 175 at virtual Twin Ring Motegi were dashed with 10 laps to go due to a three-wide battle gone wrong, altering the outcome of the 113-lap contest.
While Simon Pagenaud ended up as the ultimate opportunist by winning the race, his other two teammates Will Power and Scott McLaughlin had a far different story. All thanks to the lapped car of NTT IndyCar Series rookie Oliver Askew.
Coming into Turn 3, the running order was Power, McLaughlin and Pagenaud with the top-two guys giving it their all for several laps after their other teammate Josef Newgarden couldn’t make it on fuel and pitted four laps prior.
The Virgin Australia Supercars star had the great run over Power by taking the high line. Problems ensued after Askew decided to go underneath the two Penske drivers and the Arrow McLaren SP rookie ran out of real estate, clipping Power which resulted McLaughlin getting “net coded” and crashed hard into the wall.
McLaughlin brought his wounded virtual Penske machine onto pit road, angry at the defending Indy Lights champion during his Twitch stream.
“Did I squeeze Will? What happened there? Why would you go three-wide when you’re a lap down!” McLaughlin during the live stream after his day was derailed by Askew, who apologized on social media hours after the race.
— Oliver Askew (@Oliver_Askew) April 18, 2020
McLaughlin would calm down, reminding himself that it’s just a sim race and ended up a lap down in 24th.
As for Power, he sustained left front wing damage from Askew’s troubles and was also upset during the stream because he just couldn’t believe what he was doing putting him three-wide.
“You took out the leaders with a few laps to go,” Power to Askew via text message which also included some emojis. “Huge lack of respect for the guys racing for the lead at the end. Which you will be at some point.”
Unlike McLaughlin, Power stayed out and held on to the lead for a brief moment. Pagenaud caught him on the backstretch, touching wheels before he took the lead from Power en route of his second straight INDYCAR iRacing Challenge victory.
Power wasn’t aware that he had damage until Pagenaud told him while battling for the win and due to the incident, it cost him the victory as he ended up with a valiant third.
“That’s what lost us the race basically. We couldn’t battle for the win anymore,” Power on the wing damage. “Missing half a front wing, I was pushing a lot obviously. I was happy to hang on for third, showing how much of a gap we pulled on the whole field that I could just nurse it home and have another third-place.”
Pagenaud saw the whole incident unfold after dealing with Askew earlier, but decided to back off knowing the rookie was running very aggressive and didn’t want to use up his four fresh tires.
“We had a bit of a battle as well,” Pagenaud on racing Askew in the closing laps. “Touched a little bit and I let him by because I could see he was very aggressive on new tires. My hope was to use his draft to get to Scott (McLaughlin) and Will but then he wiped them out.”
Once the madness unfolded, the reigning Indy 500 champ thought the incident would’ve fall into the hand so of Scott Dixon, but he ultimately ended up beating the five-time INDYCAR champion by 0.342 seconds.
“I thought that was Dixon’s win right there, but we managed to come out of it and get another very strong result for Team Penske,” said Pagenaud. “It’s pretty cool to have the whole team behind us and I’m getting more messages than usual for a race win. It’s pretty amazing to see the whole team following the races and being able to represent them so well. It’s awesome for the guys and gives them a lot of hope for the season as well.”
After running two ovals at Michigan and Twin Ring Motegi, Power realized those races were great example why iRacing can be an excellent tool for rookies like Askew to better understand the dos and don’ts on oval racing in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“If you are driving like an idiot, you will be called out,” said Power. “We all hear each other’s radios and you can talk to each other. It actually bought people into line and people slowed gained more respect. I thought that was really interesting and kind of thought it would be interesting if we do that for real.
“It is a great tool for these young guys to understand how you should race a superspeedway and sort of respect that you’re supposed to hold your lane and not weaving around.
“The thing that caught me the most is the fact you get called out if you drive like an idiot. Everyone hears it and other people comment on it. Then you get pulled back straight into line and I thought that was a really good thing.”
The oval madness over the last two weeks have built a lot of anticipation for the penultimate round of the iRacing series as they’ll return to a road course April 26 at virtual Circuit of the Americas live on NBCSN. Both Pagenaud and Power will look to continue completing every single lap possible, but also extend the winning streak for “The Captain.”