Penske’s Simon Pagenaud made it two oval wins out of two in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Motegi, narrowly fending off four-time champion Scott Dixon in a frenetic encounter.
Polesitter Robert Wickens continued his epic journey by taking pole position while he is still adapting to his sim rig’s hand controls.
But there was drama elsewhere in the field as Sage Karam – the only driver to lead all three of the previous races – hit the wall and failed to set a qualifying time in his Dreyer & Reinbold entry and James Hinchcliffe suffered technical issues in qualifying and didn’t start.
Power – consistent but winless in the first three rounds for Penske – reached the lead shortly after a caution four laps in, and led through the first stint then reclaimed the lead after the first round of pitstops.
Inexperienced gamer Dixon – a double winner at Motegi including in the last IndyCar race at the track in the road course in 2011 – has improved considerably since making his debut in the iRacing championship in round two at Barber.
He was jumped by Supercars double champion, iRacing veteran and Barber race winner Scott Mclaughlin during the first round of stops.
But Dixon was soon back through and repeatedly exchanging the lead with Power going into the final stages of the race, while Power’s Australian countryman and Penske team-mate McLaughlin let the pair fight and conserved fuel and tyres.
With 28 laps to go the second pitstops started, and that left double IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden and Arrow McLaren SP’s series rookie Oliver Askew up front going long in the second stint.
Power, McLaughlin and Dixon were meanwhile scything back through the field on fresh tyres – knowing they had enough fuel to finish the race and a second per lap quicker than the leaders.
Askew pitted with 16 laps to go and Newgarden followed two laps later. While it spelled the end of Newgarden’s victory bid, he handed the lead to Penske team-mate Power, with stablemates McLaughlin and reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Pagenaud also poised to fight for victory.
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Then with 10 laps left Askew dived up the inside of Power while trying to unlap himself, in turn pushing Power up into McLaughlin. That caused McLaughlin to spin out, breaking his run of top five finishes, while Power sustained damage.
Pagenaud inherited the lead, with a charging Dixon chasing down Power for second. Dixon quickly took the place and harried Pagenaud through the last five laps.
Dixon made his last gung-ho move at Turn 1 on the last lap, and although there appeared to be contact, Pagenaud kept the lead and held on for victory before a comical post finish line crash for Dixon.
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Power held on despite his damage for another series podium, fending off ex-Formula 1 driver Marcus Ericsson who raced on the venue’s road course on his way to his 2009 Japanese F3 title, and scored his best IndyCar iRacing series result so far in fourth.
Wickens escaped an early moment to finish in fifth place, ahead of Jack Harvey and a resurgent Karam.
Zach Veach, Santino Ferrucci and Graham Rahal rounded out the top 10.
Takuma Sato was the best of the series newcomers in 11th, the 2017 Indy 500 winner finishing one spot ahead of another rookie in double NASCAR champion Kyle Busch.
Busch is the third NASCAR great to take part in the series after Jimmie Johnson and last week’s podium finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The final newcomer, Rinus Veekay, spun entering pitroad for his second stop and finished outside of the top 15.
Askew and McLaughlin were classified 21st and 24th after their incidents, with Helio Castroneves – winner of IndyCar’s final real-world Motegi oval race in 2010 – three laps down in 29th on his iRacing series debut.