Jimmie Johnson says iRacing builds his real-world IndyCar foundation

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With two IndyCar iRacing Challenge starts, Jimmie Johnson would have had a slight edge on Dale Earnhardt Jr. in experience but little else entering Saturday at Michigan International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

“I think he’s going to have a blast doing it,” Johnson told reporters Thursday about Earnhardt’s impending virtual IndyCar debut, pausing to laugh. “His experience in iRacing I think will help him enter at a higher level than I have so far!”

It’s been a bit of a literal and figurative crash course in iRacing for the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, who has pulled double duty in IndyCar and the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series for the past month. Johnson has been averaging five hours daily on his new simulation rig for the past two and a half weeks (“I felt like I didn’t sleep for two weeks, honestly, working around the clock and a lot of the time at night.”).

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. will enter IndyCar iRacing Challenge

With NASCAR’s series taking a break this weekend for Easter Sunday, Johnson also has elected to bow out of Saturday’s IndyCar race at virtual Michigan.

While he has struggled to match his real-life success (his best finish is a 12th at Barber Motorsports Park in IndyCar), Johnson is discovering iRacing has been a useful tool for learning the circuits of the NTT Series. He had planned to make a few IndyCar starts in 2021 before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic struck (and still could make his real-world debut in July).

“Especially running the Barber track, that’s where I had planned to test (on April 6 with Arrow McLaren SP), and the reason I purchased my IndyCar SIM in the first place was to learn that track for the test session I had,” Johnson said. “I feel like in some ways that If I’m able to find an opportunity in the IndyCar world in the future, I’m getting some reps on track so that’s a little rewarding and makes me feel good about the time that I’m putting in. I’m learning these drivers.

“It’s hard to say that our driving characteristics in SIM will cross over to the real world, but there is some kind of foundation or groundwork being laid on that side if a door does open there for me some day.”

Besides having a better understanding of the handling on his race car, Johnson also has discovered that the ovals have been easier to drive on his simulator rig. Michigan will mark the first oval after two road courses for IndyCar.

Though there also has been talk of adding Talladega Superspeedway to the IndyCar iRacing Challenge (which has three races left and two tracks to select), Johnson believes the 2-mile oval in the Irish Hills of Michigan is a suitable alternative.

“I feel like Michigan is going to be the Talladega IndyCar race, honestly,” Johnson said. “I’ve run it a few times in groups, and it’s just crazy to go that fast around Michigan, even though it is in the sim world. It’s just a different animal in IndyCar.

“(Wednesday), I was driving a little bit on the Richmond track in the NASCAR setup, and I’m like, ‘I want to drive the IndyCar on here.’ I still have some exploring to do. I feel like Talladega would be too big in some respects. I don’t have any kind of experience doing it. And I know I’ve been interested in the IndyCar side to learn new tracks. That’s a big part of what’s going on in my head for the future is new experiences.”

Johnson is happy to see fans have been interested in iRacing events that feature the real-world professionals.

“To see the viewership numbers and understand how much fun the fans are having watching it, it has motivated me and has me highly interested to keep it going,” he said. “As we see other sports try to figure out how to virtually offer something for their fans, we were one of the first if not the first, to do it and do it well and break all kinds of records in the process. So, hats off to everybody to pull it through, and our partners on the TV side to allow this to happen.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.