Wilson, Briscoe, Vautier all getting deserved finishing runs to IndyCar season

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Tuesday’s news that Justin Wilson will be with Andretti Autosport for the final five races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season brings the total of drivers who didn’t have a ride initially this year but are poised to finish it out with one up to three.

The others are Ryan Briscoe and Tristan Vautier, of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing, respectively.

In recent years, the in-season replacement or part-time ride hasn’t been something we’ve seen very regularly.

In 2012, there were just two fill-in drives: Giorgio Pantano subbed for Charlie Kimball at Mid-Ohio and Bruno Junqueira deputized for Josef Newgarden in Baltimore.

Last year, the only part-time drivers were Oriol Servia and Luca Filippi, who each drove four races apiece in a second Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing car.

While not under ideal circumstances in any case, opportunities have arisen to allow Wilson, Briscoe and Vautier to compete in races that they otherwise might not have, and once again showcase their talent to the rest of the IndyCar paddock.

Wilson’s saga all offseason was “will he, won’t he” join Andretti Autosport. When he finally was announced, it was at St. Petersburg, but with no races slated until the month of May.

Briscoe and Vautier had to wait longer than that for their shots.

Briscoe’s came via adverse circumstances, following James Hinchcliffe’s injuries sustained in his practice crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and with a midweek call up. He’s done well at the three oval races he’s driven thus far, running in the top-five in two of them even though he hasn’t yet delivered a top-five result.

Vautier had the strangest odyssey back to a seat after a year-plus hiatus. Originally drafted in only to qualify James Davison’s car for the Indianapolis 500, Vautier then wound up racing teammate Carlos Huertas’ car instead, and has since moved to Dale Coyne’s trademark No. 19 car that he’s wound up driving ever since.

The fact it took unusual and/or unfortunate conditions for each of these three – and for others such as Conor Daly, Pippa Mann and Sebastian Saavedra to also get extended looks this year – is more symptomatic of the issues at play in the sport itself regarding sponsorship funding than it is a critique of any of these drivers’ respective abilities.

As ever, without the volume of teams or fully paying seats in 2015 as there have been in the past means there are fewer opportunities available.

It’s good to see though when drivers have a chance to finish strong, and by default, have the opportunity to showcase themselves once more when the next round of silly season talks and finding a ride begins in the next couple months.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will race IndyCar stars in iRacing at Michigan

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The invite has been received, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has another iRacing event on his schedule.

The NASCAR on NBC analyst tweeted Wednesday that he will make his debut in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge with Saturday’s race at Michigan Speedway. The race will be shown live on NBCSN at 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday.

The 2-mile oval was chosen by IndyCar drivers as the third track in the six-race series. Earnhardt heartily endorsed Michigan as a potential iRacing venue Monday along with Daytona and Talladega. Michigan nearly was selected by fans as the opener in the iRacing Challenge.

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Earnhardt, a longtime avid iRacing fan, had been lobbying since last Thursday that he was interested in racing with IndyCar drivers.

He has driven in the first three races of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational, finishing second to Denny Hamlin in the opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Last year, he attended his first Indianapolis 500, working as an analyst as part of NBC Sports’ inaugural broadcast of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“I’d love to do it,” Earnhardt said Monday about joining the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. “I think I’d love to get to know those guys.

“I had such a great time at the Indy 500 last year, and the reception that I received from other drivers there really meant a lot to me. So I know they’re all a lot of great dudes in that series that I already know that I’d love to get to know some of them even better.”

It already has been quite the week for Earnhardt, who was announced Monday as one of 15 nominees for the 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The field for Saturday’s race at Michigan should include another  NASCAR driver in Jimmie Johnson. The seven-time Cup champion has driven the first two races of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge (and has plans to race IndyCar part time in the future).