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.