Reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud won the Michigan IndyCar iRacing Challenge event, as NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr finished third on his series debut as good strategy reigned.
Drama marked the IndyCar iRacing Challenge’s first visit to an oval for round three of the series, as a pile-up before some even reached the green flag put a number of frontrunners out of the race and left others having to use their valuable resets to get back into contention.
Tony Kanaan was the only driver the field to have raced in IndyCar at Michigan as the series returned to the Milwaukee track for the first time since 2007, while the new-for-2020 aeroscreen device got its oval debut.
The frontrunning drivers showed that the pre-weekend practice paid off as round one winner Sage Karam led double-podium finisher Will Power and ex-Formula 1 driver Felipe Nasr for the majority of the opening stint, with Nasr’s former Sauber team-mate Marcus Ericsson also in the mix, having started on pole.
However, Karam established full control by extending a one-second lead with a clean entrance and exit from pitroad, something Nasr couldn’t manage as he slipped out of contention in his first IndyCar oval race after losing the rear-end on his way in for fuel and tyres.
Karam triggered a mixed-up field with 13 laps to go though, as he pitted seemingly short on fuel. Will Power followed one lap later while fellow contender Graham Rahal had stopped shortly before.
That left an unusual top 10, and it was completely uncertain who would have enough fuel to make it to the end, and how far up Power, Karam et al. would be able to rebound.
Power led the group of late stoppers but could only rebound to fourth, as Penske driver Pagenaud pulled off the team’s second strategy coup in as many weeks as a two-stop strategy helped double Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin win at Barber Motorsports Park for round two.
— Simon Pagenaud (@simonpagenaud) April 11, 2020
Pagenaud held on ahead of McLaughlin – who took second on his oval debut to add to his Barber win, despite not yet having made his real-life IndyCar race debut – ahead of Earnhardt Jr.
The 26-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner had declared his interest in taking part and making an IndyCar debut on Twitter.
He avoided major damage in the lap-one wreck and dodged a huge accident after reigning real-life IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden lost his car coming off Turn 2 early on.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) April 11, 2020
A brilliant strategy call meant he was able to stay out in the closing stages, off the pace but with enough fuel to avoid pitting and complete the podium. It meant two of the top three have yet to race an IndyCar in real life.
Power headed Rahal home, while Jack Harvey and Alexander Rossi were passed late on by the charging Power/Rahal combo but settled for sixth and seventh.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 IndyCar champion, impressed on his first outing, and led late on before pitting with two laps to go as he ran out of fuel. Despite that late stop, he was able to climb back to eighth, ahead of Ed Carpenter and Alex Palou.
McLaren Arrow SP pair Oliver Askew – who had won a practice race earlier in the week – and Patricio O’Ward both hit trouble early as Askew crashed into Felix Rosenqvist to trigger the initial pile-up, which also ruled out Colton Herta, five-time champion Scott Dixon and series debutant Marco Andretti.
O’Ward had connection issues, which cost him five laps early on, ruling him out of a chance for victory.
Among the other drivers making a debut, Carlin’s Max Chilton got stuck in fifth gear. The ex-F1 driver was driving from the Carlin base in Farnham, UK.