Dale Jr., Sage Karam preview IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Michigan

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IndyCar’s iRacing Challenge continues this Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) with its most star-studded field yet.

The third race of the challenge is highlighted by the addition of two-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., this weekend’s race at virtual Michigan International Speedway will feature 31 cars and drivers.

Joining Earnhardt as newcomers are IndyCar regulars Marco Andretti (who takes the wheel of his No. 98 Honda back from Scott Speed, who was third at Watkins Glen), Ryan Hunter-Reay (who returns to his No. 28 DHL Honda after yielding to Kyle Kirkwood the past two races) and Max Chilton. Five-time Indianapolis 500 starter James Davison will also make his iRacing Challenge debut this weekend.

ENTRY LIST: Who will be racing in round three

Two-time SuperCars champion Scott McLaughlin is the most recent winner on the circuit, having won last weekend’s race at virtual Barber Motorsports Park. Sage Karam won the first race at Watkins Glen.

While he is considered by many of his peers as IndyCar’s unofficial iRacing expert, Karam is too young to have raced at Michigan in real life (Indy cars last competed on the 2-mile oval since 2007). However, he did race at the nearly identical Auto Club Speedway in 2015.

Karam said that he expects that this weekend’s race should produce similar racing.

“I think it’s going to be a pack race kind of feel, kind of like how Fontana was in 2015,” Karam said during an IndyCar teleconference Friday. “But it’s going to be exciting, that’s for sure. I just think we need to stay off of each other, and we should be all right.

“I think once it comes to race time, it’ll be a bit better. I think the guys will then know that the race is on the line and stuff like that. It’s just kind of the same thing that’s happened the last couple of events. When we’re doing these practice runs and stuff, we just have a little bit more fun, and then when
the race comes we turn it down 5 percent or whatever.”

Like Karam, the majority of drivers in this weekend’s race have never competed at Michigan before. Only two drivers entered this weekend have won a race at the facility – Tony Kanaan (2007) and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has two victories apiece in NASCAR’s Cup (2008 and 2012) and Xfinity Series (1999 and 2006) at the facility.

While he’s never driven an Indy car before, Earnhardt looks forward to competing in this weekend’s race despite his lack of open-wheel experience.

“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, so there’s a lot of learning and trying to understand why the car reacts the way it does and what creates those issues,” Earnhardt said. “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 also said that he has a lot of respect for the IndyCar drivers that he will be competing against this weekend.

“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,” Earnhardt said. “I was just kind of sitting there listening to everybody go back and forth with each other, and it’s kind of funny. I kind of understand that camaraderie and the back and forth that they have is really similar to what we have in the Cup Series.”

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994