There may have been a time when NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would have tried a real Indy car, but those days are long gone.
On Saturday, though he gets to drive a virtual Indy car (with the No. 3) in the Chevrolet 275 at virtual Michigan International Speedway.
The third race of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge will be televised on NBCSN at 2:30 p.m. ET.
Earnhardt, who has been a NASCAR on NBC analyst since the end of his NASCAR driving career in 2017, is a fan of all motorsports. The chance to compete against the top drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series allows him to channel his innermost “fanboy.”
In the process, the driver who was nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame earlier this week can bring some new eyes to the IndyCar world through his participation Saturday.
“I think these guys have such great personalities, and they’re even more diverse than what we have in NASCAR because they’re from all over the world,” Earnhardt said, responding to a question from NBCSports.com. “I think that that’s the real value in the series is the drivers and their personalities and who they are.
“I’m ‘fanboy-ing’ myself just being out there hearing them talk, hearing them interact with each other, getting to know them better.
“I’ve got a few friends in the series but certainly want to know the other guys and get to know the rest of them really well, so this is such a great opportunity for me to do that, and I think the fans are really going to appreciate getting the opportunity to see them on the racetrack, on the virtual racetrack throughout this break, to get to know them even more.”
Saturday’s race will mark the first time the IndyCar Series has staged a virtual race on an oval during its six-race iRacing Challenge.
Because Michigan International Speedway is a high-banked 2-mile oval, even in the sim racing world, drafting is replicated on the track.
In his former career as a NASCAR Cup Series star, Earnhardt was a master drafter at Daytona International Speedway (Daytona 500 wins in 2004 and ’14) and Talladega Superspeedway (six victories, second only to his late father’s 10).
After gaining experience from iRacing practice events at Michigan this week, Earnhardt noted the differences and similarities of racing in the draft between a stock car and an Indy car.
“Two wide was pretty common all day long at Daytona and Talladega in a Cup car, three wide seems to be real common in the Indy car,” Earnhardt said. “Not only are you worried about the guy beside you, whichever side he’s on, and the run you’re trying to create off the car in front of him. Also, the run the guys have behind you. Most of the time, you might have two guys beside you, you get boxed in real easy, and then when the car produces the runs, you don’t have something to do with it. You don’t have a place to go, and you have to make that decision for yourself to not take it.
“Hopefully I have enough patience to do that. I definitely don’t want to be the one to start any crashes. I’m the new guy. I’m a fish out of water, and just being able to shift gears and have gear selection while you’re drafting and trying to understand how to produce opportunities using that is really foreign to me. I’m learning on the fly. All these guys have been really helpful, the ones I’ve reached out to have been very supportive, and it’s a good group.”
Earnhardt has been a major proponent of iRacing since the platform started, though he had little experience with IndyCar until this week.
“Practice was a lot of fun,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve been on iRacing for a couple decades, but I haven’t put much time on the Indy car, and obviously have no real-world experience. There’s a lot of learning and trying to understand why the car reacts the way it does and what creates those issues because some of them are realistic. Some of them may be because of the sim or the tire model or the sim.
“Just trying to understand how to stay out of trouble, keep yourself out of trouble was what yesterday’s practice was about, and I’m looking forward to today, practicing some more with these guys.”
As an NBC Sports announcer, Earnhardt attended his first Indianapolis 500 last year. It was a lifetime thrill to finally see the big race that he always watched as a kid and throughout his NASCAR career as a driver.
“To actually be at the Indy 500 for the first time, my first IndyCar race, to meet and interact with some of the drivers was a real treat for me and really got to see the series and the value in it and enjoy it,” he said.
It also gave him a chance to get to know the drivers of the NTT IndyCar Series.
“I have so much respect for the guys that are in the field and the guys that we’ll be practicing with and racing with this weekend,” Earnhardt said. “It’s kind of fun for me to get to know their personalities a little bit and how they interact with each other was really fun yesterday during practice.
“I was sitting there listening to everybody go back and forth with each other, and it’s kind of funny. I understand that camaraderie and the back and forth that they have is really similar to what we have in the Cup Series, and they’re all racers.”
Earnhardt has a big name. He wants to make sure he doesn’t tarnish that reputation by making a rookie mistake in the Indy car.
“I just hope that I can stay out of trouble, and that’s going to be the main thing early,” he said. “There are two trains of thought: You can go real hard and try to keep yourself toward the front if you can because there’ll hopefully not be a lot of trouble up there. Or if you’re not able to do that, you’ve got to hope that you don’t get caught up in anything going on in the middle or back of the back which is definitely probably going to have some action.
“That’s what iRacing is all about, just trying to know when to stay out of trouble and then when to push.”
Earnhardt has transcended many forms of racing. Though his career was strictly stock cars, drivers in various racing series loved his style and his personality.
When IndyCar team owner Mike Harding started his IndyCar team in 2016, he picked car No. 88 in honor of his favorite driver, Dale Jr.
That was Earnhardt’s chosen number after he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. That car is part of Andretti Autosport with rising star Colton Herta as the driver.
“I wasn’t sure if that was really a tribute to me or they just liked the font,” Earnhardt joked. “Either way, I know the guy over the team or owns the team was a fan.
“I loved it. I thought it was beautiful. It’s a good-looking number and looks good on that race car. They’ve been able to develop that team and improve that team and it’s great to see the success that they’ve been able to have. I love seeing it out there.”
Voted a 15-time Most Popular Driver in NASCAR, Earnhardt, 45, remains a fan favorite. Though he never had a chance to drive a real IndyCar, he has deep admiration for the craft and is enthused about the prospect of virtually doing it Saturday.
“I love it,” he said. “I might have been crazy enough to take up an offer to run Indy car in my 20s or maybe my early 30s, but I didn’t have the guts for it. As I got toward my 40s, I certainly don’t have the balls for it today.
“But when I heard that there might be an opportunity for me to get out there on a simulator … I feel like I can hold my own with most of the customer base on there, and these are real-world guys. It’s just such an honor, I guess, to be out there and on the track with them.
“This is all a lot of fun.”