NASCAR: Sam Hornish Jr. wins Nationwide pole at Mid-Ohio

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The locals that come out for today’s NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course will see one of their own on the pole position.

Defiance, Ohio native Sam Hornish Jr. bagged the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 pole this morning with a final-round qualifying lap of 84.787 seconds in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

Fellow ex-IndyCar driver Alex Tagliani held the provisional pole early on in the final round with an 85.092-second lap that was eclipsed by Hornish.

With less than 2 minutes to go, Tagliani went out again in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford but on his final flyer lap, a wheel hop caused him to lose control and spin out going into Turn 4 – ensuring that Hornish would win the pole on home ground.

“I was pretty happy with the [lap],” Hornish told ESPN. “We only did one lap in the first session, trying to save our tires a little bit, and felt like we were pretty close. Then we almost ended up getting bumped out there at the end [of Round 1]. It’s an interesting qualifying format for sure. To be able to go out there and put in two solid laps in the Monster Energy car felt pretty good.

“Everybody that works on this car did a great job overnight getting the engine changed, making sure that everything was put back together properly. The car handled really good this morning, and hopefully, it will continue that way into the race.”

Hornish is making his seventh Nationwide start of the year in the No. 54 car, and he really wants to bring home a trophy from a track where he watched many races while growing up.

“I remember coming here as a kid, having the opportunity – this is one of the places where I’ve seen more races probably from outside the fence then I have from the race car,” he said. “So, I always think about the memories I have from actually being here as a fan more so than a driver.”

Hornish and Tagliani will start from the front row, while a pair of Richard Childress Racing drivers in Brian Scott and Ty Dillon will go off from Row 2. The third row features Chris Buescher and Justin Marks, followed by Road America winner Brendan Gaughan and Regan Smith.

Nationwide Series points leader Chase Elliott will start ninth on the inside of Row 5 alongside Kenny Habul. Today’s green flag for the 90-lap event is expected around 2:45 p.m. ET.

NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES AT MID-OHIO – Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200
Qualifying Results

1. 54-Sam Hornish Jr.
2. 22-Alex Tagliani
3. 2-Brian Scott
4. 3-Ty Dillon
5. 60-Chris Buescher
6. 31-Justin Marks
7. 62-Brendan Gaughan
8. 7-Regan Smith
9. 9-Chase Elliott
10. 20-Kenny Habul
11. 99-James Buescher
12. 42-Dylan Kwasniewski
13. 11-Elliott Sadler
14. 6-Trevor Bayne
15. 01-Ryan Ellis
16. 87-Stanton Barrett
17. 14-Jeff Green
18. 40-Matt Dibenedetto
19. 51-Jeremy Clements
20. 19-Mike Bliss
21. 43-Dakoda Armstrong
22. 44-Carlos Contreras
23. 39-Ryan Sieg
24. 28-J.J. Yeley
25. 93-Tomy Drissi
26. 23-Cody Ware
27. 4-Jeffrey Earnhardt
28. 16-Ryan Reed
29. 17-Tanner Berryhill
30. 86-Tim Cowen
31. 55-Timmy Hill
32. 52-Joey Gase
33. 46-Josh Reaume
34. 74-Bobby Reuse
35. 70-Derrike Cope
36. 10-Blake Koch
37. 15-Carl Long
38. 79-John Jackson
39. 74-Roger Reuse

Graham Rahal tries to get up to speed in IndyCar iRacing Challenge

Graham Rahal Photo
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Although he’s just 31 years old, Graham Rahal has been driving an Indy car since the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he still a teenager.

When it comes to the virtual world, however, Rahal is an admitted “newbie.”

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver hopes to get up to speed in time to be competitive in Saturday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama virtual race. It’s part of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge and will be televised live by NBCSN at 2:30 p.m.

The six-time NTT IndyCar Series race winner got his virtual racing rig before last week’s American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International but was still learning the nuances of the iRacing platform. He started 12th and finished 14th out of 25 cars in the contest. The first 12 finishers were on the lead lap. Rahal was one lap down.

“I had never done it before,” Rahal said Friday. “At least it probably had been 10 years since I had driven any sort of sim. It’s addicting…rather addicting. Second of all, it’s bad for your marriage, but it’s a great way to kill a day of quarantine.

“But I think it’s been a big challenge just to get used to the way that you feel a car, the way that you drive a car in the sim, it’s all completely different than real life. To get used to that sensation, to get everything set up right is a huge part of it.”

Inside the cockpit of his No. 15 Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal feels at comfortable in his own element. It has taken him time to find that comfort level in the virtual world.

“For me it has been a challenge to just figure out the right settings, what to do from afar, too,” Rahal said. “Obviously you don’t have anybody here (at his home) that plays iRacing or anything to help you firsthand. It’s been a bit of a challenge; but I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Next up is Barber Motorsports Park, which in the real world is a very challenging course but it puts on some of the best road course racing on the real IndyCar schedule. Rahal believes it will also be quite a challenge on iRacing.

“I think Barber is going to be actually more difficult than Watkins Glen,” Rahal said. “The track has a little bit less grip than Watkins Glen did last week. Although everybody was still crashing at Watkins Glen, I think you can get away with more than what you can at Barber. In real life it’s that way, too.

“I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be fun.”

Rahal is married to former drag racing star Courtney Force. Both are playing it safe by staying home by statewide order from Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb. But Rahal still has to find the balance between husband and virtual race driver.

By contrast, some of the other IndyCar drivers are spending 10-12 hours a day practicing on iRacing.

“That’s the challenge,” Rahal said, responding to a question posed by NBCSports.com. “I could definitely spend way more time on it. My line to Courtney is, ‘Just give me two laps.’ Then, one hour and 45 minutes later I’m still sitting there. It’s frustrating.

“As Robbie Wickens said, the frustrating part is you go out, you put in a good lap, then it’s, ‘I need to go beat that.’ You spin and you spin, and you spin. Then you get mad. The competitiveness in you, two more laps, two more laps. You try to go and go and go.

“You sit there for hours and hours and hours.”

Rahal admits he can’t stay away from iRacing for long. He is genuinely curious and interested in seeing what the competition is doing.

“I go on pretty frequently to see what’s going on,” Rahal said. “A lot of guys are on all the time. Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais has been on a load, Tony Kanaan, Willie P (Will Power). I think everyone is enjoying it. But it’s a huge challenge.

“There are a couple of guys that are clearly quicker than everybody else, Will being one of those. I’m trying to figure out where and how to find the lap time. I’m telling you, it’s so different than reality in that way.

“But it’s been fun, man. I’ve enjoyed the challenge. It’s good for the exposure, good because people are paying attention. You can see it on our Instagram. If you look at the clicks or page views in the last seven days, they’ve been doubled since we started to do this stuff. While it’s great for that, it also does help kill a ton of time.”

These are unique times as the world has essential shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more and more humans are testing positive of the potentially deadly virus, the threat becomes more real.

It has also created a tremendous void as people try to find something to do to pass the long times of isolation.

By giving race fans a few hours of entertainment, even if it is virtual instead of real, then Rahal believes it’s worth it.

“I think a lot of people are just dying for something to do, something to watch,” Rahal said. “The competitiveness in all of us wants to see some sort of sport.

“I know there are other buddies like hockey players that are watching it because they just want to watch something. They need something to do. So, I think that’s a big part of it.

“I think it’s great that NBC Sports is covering it this weekend other than just being online. I think it will be tremendous to see how that turns out.

“This is very realistic. When you see the cars on track, you watch a replay, see the photos, it’s eerily real looking. I did a race at St. Louis last weekend. It was extremely entertaining I think for the drivers that were participating. Other than 400 yellow flags, which happened early in the race, it was really, really entertaining to be a part of. People who watched that race would have loved the show that they had been seeing. I think there’s a lot of realism to it.

“I think it’s also people just want something right now. The desire and the demand is there to log in or tune in and see something competitive on TV.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500