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.
“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.”