Dale Earnhardt Jr. relishes ‘fanboy’ life in IndyCar iRacing at Michigan


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.

MORE: Felix Rosenqvist fuels the competitive fire in iRacing

ENTRY LISTIndyCar iRacing Challenge at Michigan (Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

“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.”

Earnhardt takes to Graham and Courtney Rahal at 2017 Daytona 500 (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

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.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The red flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500