Jimmie Johnson says iRacing builds his real-world IndyCar foundation


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

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”