Just call Dale Jr. ‘The Natural’ in IndyCar iRacing Michigan race

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt Jr. showed that his decade’s worth of experience in iRacing was valuable. The two-time NASCAR Cup Series winner at Michigan International Speedway finished third in Saturday’s virtual IndyCar race, the Chevrolet 275 at MIS.

Earnhardt proved in this form of sim racing; he is “The Natural.”

Earnhardt, who is part of the NASCAR broadcast team for NBC Sports, took his invitation to race against IndyCar’s regular field of drivers seriously. He spent much of the week practicing on his sim rig at his home in Mooresville, North Carolina.

But don’t conjure up visions of Earnhardt attempting to drive in a real Indy car in the future.

“I don’t think Amy (his wife) would let me get back in a race car, much less an Indy car,” Earnhardt said after the race. “The fastest cars didn’t win, and the best sim racers probably didn’t win, but this is the closest I will probably get to the real thing.

“That’s just the way I like it. I can do it from the comfort of my own home. I’m racing against top race drivers.”

Earnhardt said he would like to be included in the next oval race in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge (the next track for the April 11 race will be a “Random Draw” that could be announced as soon as Monday). He had one dream scenario that he would love to see happen.

“It might be Indy,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve never imagined racing against the real drivers in IndyCar at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What a great trip that would be for me if I could pull that off in the next several weeks.”

Earnhardt said afterward that with his wife, Amy, in the second trimester of her pregnancy for the couple’s second child, he has to balance his iRacing commitments. He already is committed to two NASCAR virtual races next week.

As for his ability adapting to the unique speed and handling of a high-speed virtual IndyCar, Earnhardt displayed the ability that makes him a natural for this platform.

He has been an avid iRacer since for nearly two decades and regularly competed against the likes of IndyCar drivers such as the late Justin Wilson in the past.

Earnhardt believes that past experience on the virtual platform was extremely helpful in his third-place finish against the IndyCar regulars in the Chevrolet 275, but he added that the full-time iRacing professionals are even better.

“If you were to put the best guys in the (iRacing) service in that race, they would destroy all of us,” Earnhardt said, responding to a question posed by NBCSports.com. “If you were to put some of the best customers or best drivers on the service in the NASCAR events, they would destroy all the NASCAR drivers. You can’t hold a candle to them because of their experience and the time they put into it.

“But you can see there is a wide variety of skillsets when it comes to the real-world drivers. When you group them together, you see the guys have a lot of time on the sim that are smart and clever about how the sim reacts, how the tires fall off, how you can counter that. There are other guys that have no idea what is about to happen. They just drive the car as hard as they can, burn it up.

“The funny thing about it is, with all that said, I’ve seen this on the NASCAR side, I certainly think it’s got to be true on the IndyCar side, is they adapt super-fast. The guys that have never used the service, never drove the sim, not even gamers, really adapt so quickly because of how realistic I believe the platform is, the iRacing platform is. They pick up on it really quick.”

Earnhardt made a direct comparison to one of NASCAR’s biggest stars, who has quickly picked up the virtual racing format and showed tremendous progress in recent weeks in the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series.

“I kind of hate to step outside of the IndyCar world, but we’ve been spending so much time with all the Cup regulars,” Earnhardt said. “Kyle Busch, what a great example of a guy who had no clue of what he was doing, and now he’s guaranteed a top-10 finish, maybe top-five, and it shouldn’t be that way. It’s much more challenging than he makes it look. He puts so much time in.

“I can say the same thing with the IndyCar guys.”

As far as his podium finish in his IndyCar virtual debut, the two-time Daytona 500 winner believed there was “a lot of luck involved” after an early crash.

“The start of the race was a little bit odd,” Earnhardt explained. “We’d been starting much earlier off of Turn 4 in our practice races. I think the rest of the field behind the leaders were anticipating going around that same area. The leaders chose to roll a little closer to the start/finish line. Everybody kind of got banged up there. Someone ran into the back of me.

iRacing Photo

“We wanted to save our quick fix that would repair all the damage on the car because I was anticipating a lot more yellows. We didn’t pit. I didn’t even know that we had fell into the strategy on fuel that we had. That kind of became apparent as we started to think about taking our first pit stop. I was like, ‘Let’s split the race in half.’ ”

By doing so, Earnhardt quickly committed to the fuel-saving strategy and advanced his way into the third behind the Team Penske duo of winner Simon Pagenaud and second-place Scott McLaughlin.

“We ended up running out the gas as we crossed the finish line, getting the checkered,” Earnhardt said. “We ended up frustrating some guys because their strategy didn’t work out well in the fastest car, the best sim racers didn’t finish where they should have.

“I had a good time. I was really thankful to be invited. Really appreciated the opportunity to be a part of this. I really became a huge fan of the series, even more of a fan of the series last year when I went to the Indy 500 (as an NBC announcer in 2019). The guys, it’s fun to get to know them. They all have such wild personalities, different personalities. So much complexity to the stars in that series. It’s kind of fun getting to know who they really are.

“I think in sim racing, much like any kind of console gaming, PC gaming, whatever, that’s going to bring out your real personality, the good and the bad. It’s kind of fun to see some of those guys really kind of come out of their shell.”

Imagine, though, if Earnhardt has picked up the tricks of virtual IndyCar racing this quickly, what it would be like to see him in an actual Indy car? Would he be open to an IndyCar race on a street or road course, or at least a test of the real thing?

“No, I probably wouldn’t,” Earnhardt told NBCSports.com. “For the most part, my driving days are over. I have a few events left in me. I don’t know how many of those Xfinity races I’ll be running beyond this year.

“This is a dream come true, to have all the real-world guys on the computer. That’s where I’ve been for two decades. This is awesome to have all these guys. It’s awesome that they’re all competing and we’re having these races broadcast on network television in front of so many people.

“The reaction generally from the public is, ‘Man, I’d love to have the real thing, but this is pretty good. I’ll watch this till we get the real thing back.’ ”

Saturday’s race was far from the real thing, but it was entertaining to see one of the biggest names in NASCAR behind the wheel of an Indy car, even if it was virtual reality.

“I’m loving it. This is awesome. Dream come true,” Earnhardt said. “I never would have imagined this would happen in a million years, for there to be legitimate, in my mind, as far as sim racing goes, in that community and that bubble, legitimate racing with real-world drivers.

“It’s pretty impressive.”

Equally impressive was the reaction some of the biggest stars in IndyCar gave to Earnhardt after Saturday’s race. The former NASCAR star was widely welcomed because of the added attention he has brought to the IndyCar Series drivers.

“It’s really awesome to see him join us because he’s such a big name in racing,” race winner, defending Indianapolis 500 winner and 2016 IndyCar Series champion Pagenaud said. “He can reach to so many more people than we do because he’s been racing for so many years at such high level. It’s pretty amazing to see the humility he has to come and race a series he doesn’t know, a car he doesn’t know.

“I know he’s been doing a lot of iRacing, but still what he did today is pretty amazing. I just really like him. I’m a big fan of him and I was of his dad. I’m just very happy that he joined us. I hope he can do more in the future because I think he’s having fun.

“I’m personally having a lot of fun racing him. It’s amazing to get to race your heroes.”

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