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Penske hails iRacing impact on IndyCar: ‘It’s creating a lot of interest’

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Roger Penske has become an avid viewer of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, and one driver in particular caught his eye at Michigan International Speedway (besides Team Penske winner Simon Pagenaud).

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s third place in his series debut had Penske thinking about translating virtual racing into the real world.

“The biggest news we had was when I got the call that Dale’s thinking about running, (and) I said, ‘How can we be sure he runs,’” Penske, who became the owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year, said during a visit to the Dale Jr. Download podcast this week (the conversation will air at 4 p.m. ET today on NBCSN). “I saw that Nationwide car. It was terrific.

WATCH: Roger Penske on The Dale Jr. Download today, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN

“I hope Dale you’re going to run again with us. I thought it was terrific for us, and I thank you for taking the time to join the IndyCar Series, and hey, maybe when you decide if you want to run there for real at the Indy 500, maybe you give me a call, we’ll see if we can’t get you a good car.”

Earnhardt laughed and told Penske, “If I ever did, you’d be the guy I’d call first!”

The NASCAR on NBC analyst won’t be racing Saturday in Round 4 at Twin Ring Motegi (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), but Earnhardt hinted he might return in the last two races.

Regardless, Penske still will be watching – and not just because his drivers are ranked in the top three spots of the unofficial points standings.

“With this technology we’ve had, people are taking it to the next level,” Penske said. “The iRacing guys have done a terrific job. The stick and ball sports can’t do this, can they? We’re unique in the case that we have this. It’s real. Will (Power), Scott (McLaughlin), (Simon) Pagenaud are on this for hours and are getting in trouble with their wives for spending so much time at the track.

“The technology has been terrific. But more important is I think what it’s done is kept us relevant because it keeps our drivers in social media talking about it, the cars, the sponsors. I think (that) is key. That’s giving us relevance, (putting) our model, our license in front of four fans, and it’s creating a lot of interest.”

The Michigan race averaged 202,000 viewers on NBCSN (peaking at 248,000), which was up 25 percent from the Barber Motorsports Park event the week before. The IndyCar iRacing Challenge was the No. 1 cable sports event in the 2:30-4 p.m. window Saturday.

Penske likes the audience metrics but cautions against too much of a good thing with IndyCar, NASCAR and IMSA all holding virtual races this week.

“One thing is we have to be careful we don’t oversaturate it,” he said. “We can’t run every single week with every driver. We talk about this internally, and we don’t want to cross pollinize, because I think NASCAR fans want to say, ‘What’s going on with the NASCAR people?’ At Indy, we wanted to have a couple of extra people to come in, invited guests like Dale and Jimmie (Johnson), that really makes a difference, but too much is too much.

“Let’s make these events real. Sooner or later, we’ll get too much of it. We want to keep it every time there is one, it’s something special.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”