Simon Pagenaud wins IndyCar iRacing at Michigan; Dale Jr. third

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VIRTUAL BROOKLYN, Mich. — Simon Pagenaud played the fuel strategy perfectly, winning the IndyCar iRacing Challenge event Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.

The 2019 Indianapolis 500 winner took the lead with four laps remaining in the Chevrolet 275 when Zach Veach ran out of fuel.

Scott McLaughlin, who retained the unofficial points lead, finished second, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Graham Rahal and Will Power, who notched his third top five in the series.

Pagenaud pitted his No. 22 Dallara- Chevrolet on Lap 46 of 85, which put him within the fuel window to take the checkered flag on the 2-mile oval as several contenders such as Sage Karam and Veach had to give up the lead without enough fuel.

“All the credit goes to (strategist) Ben Bretzman and also my virtual team that’s right behind me,” Pagenaud told the IndyCar on NBC broadcast booth. “We worked hard to understand this kind of racing. Having teammates, we work together to understand fuel consumption and strategies. It’s a pleasure to bring the DXC car to victory lane this year!”

It was the second consecutive 1-2 finish for Team Penske, which had swept Barber Motorsports Park’s top two spots with McLaughlin and Power last week.

“It really worked out good for saving fuel and managed to pass Dale Jr. with a few laps to go,” McLaughlin, who was using NASCAR spotter T.J. Majors, said of his second at Michigan. “I never thought I’d say that, but it was a lot of fun racing him and really proud of putting the Snap-On car on the podium.”

Pagenaud, who wore his real-life firesuit while in the sim rig and had champagne ready afterward, said the race was “very, very stressful. It’s the most stressful I’ve been in a race car, quite frankly. There’s a lot going on in the headset. I have two people talking, plus the spotter.”

The first five laps of the race were run under a yellow flag after a massive pileup involving at least 10 cars occurred just after the initial green and effectively eliminated several drivers on the first lap.

Pagenaud, who qualified toward the rear, also got a piece of the accident but was able to continue.

“We were just saving fuel trying to stay out of trouble,” the Team Penske driver said. “At the start of the race, we got run into. The goal was to stay out of the back. We didn’t have the pace in qualifying. I must have done something wrong with my lane, and we qualified toward the back. We decided to go for Option B, which is saving fuel and conserving tires.”

Earnhardt, who was making his debut in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, also was damaged in the crash, but the NASCAR on NBC analyst was able to rebound in his No. 3 Chevrolet.

“That was a lot of fun,” said Earnhardt, who capped off a week that also included a NASCAR Hall of Fame nomination. “We got a little damage in that wreck on the front straightaway and saved our quick fix, but we never ended up using it. I had a real bad push in the car, so I couldn’t really run with the lead pack, but it was fun.”

Earnhardt told IndyCar on NBC host Leigh Diffey he wants to race again if there’s another oval in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, which has three races remaining. Michigan marked the first oval, and the April 11 race will be a “random draw” track that hasn’t been announced.

“I really appreciated the invite,” Earnhardt said. “I need to do a better accounting of myself as far as showing pure speed. Just wasn’t able to show it today.

“I’d love the opportunity. Plus, just maybe it might be Daytona or Indy. I never imagined racing the real drivers in IndyCar at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What a great trip that would be if I could pull that off in the next couple of weeks.”

Felix Rosenqvist (bottom) crashes with Ed Carpenter (top) during the IndyCar iRacing Challenge Chevrolet 275 at virtual Michigan International Speedway (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

After the first yellow, there were no more cautions as iRacing officials told drivers the remainder of the event would remain green because of time constraints.

“What that did was took the leaders out of it and kind of put it into the hands of those who were collected in the first accident,” Rahal said. “But that’s life. We came up a little short.”

Scott Dixon, Oliver Askew, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta were among those who fell out within the first 25 laps, and Pato O’Ward also fell several laps down because of Internet connection problems.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”