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.”).
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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.”