Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets revved up for simulated Michigan International Speedway IndyCar race

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is excited with the opportunity to make his debut in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge with Saturday’s Chevrolet 275 race at Michigan International Speedway, which will be shown live on NBCSN at 2:30.

No doubt, Earnhardt is familiar with the two-mile oval at MIS, winning multiple NASCAR races, June 2008 and June 2012.

But, the IndyCar series will be new to Earnhardt who enjoyed the series and drivers while covering last year’s Indianapolis 500 as an analyst last May, saying he is friends with IndyCar driver Graham Rahal.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., team owner and TV analyst, will take part in the a simulated IndyCar race where Michigan International Speedway is the setting.

Earnhardt will drive the No. 3 car his father, the late Dale Earnhardt made famous in the NASCAR series in the 1980s and '90s, winning seven series championships.

The Indy 500 has been pushed back to Aug. 23 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the first time the series’ premier race hasn’t been run during Memorial Day weekend since 1945.

The doubleheader on Belle Isle was supposed to resume the 2020 IndyCar season before that event was canceled earlier this week and won’t be rescheduled this season.

IndyCar racing ended its run at MIS in 2007, but iRacing brings the two-mile superspeedway back on the IndyCar scene.

Earnhardt and his fellow drivers, including IndyCar drivers Sage Karam and Conor Daly, had a practice race at MIS Thursday and another one set for Friday afternoon after they were involved in a Zoom video news conference.

Earnhardt’s goals are simple for Saturday’s race: don’t cause a crash and have fun. He is impressed how drivers in past years have had double duty on Memorial Day weekend, competing in the Indianapolis 500, then flying to Charlotte to run the Coca-Cola 600 later that evening with Tony Stewart finishing sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte in 2001. Kurt Busch was the last to try the double duty in 2014, finishing sixth at Indy.

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“I don’t have any time in the car on the simulator, obviously no real-world experience so there’s a lot of learning and trying to understand why the car reacts the way it does and what creates those issues because some of them are realistic and some of them maybe because of the sim (simulator), so just trying to understand how to keep yourself out of trouble is what yesterday’s practice was about and I’m looking forward to today to practice some more with these guys,” Earnhardt said.

“I had such a great time when I went to the Indy 500 last year and I have so much respect for the guys that are in the field and the guys that will be practicing and racing with this weekend, so it’s kind of fun for me to just get to know their personalities a little bit, and how they interact with each other was really fun yesterday during practice. I was just kind of sitting there and listening to everybody going back and forth. I kind of understand that camaraderie and the back and forth that they have. It’s really similar to what we have in the Cup series. They are all racers. I just hope I can stay out of trouble. That’s going to be the main thing early.

“There’s two kind of trains of thought there, you can go real hard and try to keep yourself toward the front if you can, because there will hopefully not be any trouble up there, or if you’re not able to do that you’ve got to hope that you don’t get caught up in anything going on in the middle or the back of the pack which is definitely probably going to have some action. That’s what iRacing is all about, just trying to know when to stay out of trouble and when to push. The tires are going to fall off a little bit. The car gets real, real tight in some circumstances and that’s real challenging for everybody in the pack, so just knowing how to keep yourself out of trouble is the main thing.”

Daly, who competes part-time for Ed Carpenter Racing, talked of his iRacing experience. One thing for sure, Daly won’t get injured the way his father, Derek Daly did in a crash at MIS back in 1984 when the front end of his car was sheared off and he suffered multiple injuries, including crushed left ankle, fractured pelvis, broken ribs and a broken hand.

“It’s been fun,” Daly said. “Michigan was actually the first track that we got on when this whole iRacing IndyCar Challenge was set up, they had Michigan and Watkins Glen as the two practice sessions and we got on there and it’s been a lot of fun the racing there with the track being so wide so many different lanes you could use, and just yesterday with the practice race honestly I was really impressed with all of us.

“I thought it was going to be a lot more chaotic then it was, and the racing is crazy, like it’s very close, there was a lot of overtaking, but it also thinned out at times. Pitting for tires is super important. I thought it was a lot of fun.”

Daly said it is also important to get his sponsors some love.

“We didn’t know what to expect from it (IndyCar iRacing) really at first,” Daly said. “We have this incredible looking U.S. Air Force car and want to put it on the internet because they’ve committed to us in real life and they are willing to invest in me and in our sport and obviously in this difficult time in the world right now we have to give them as much as possible for being willing to commit to us in the first place.

“I think we are honestly in the early stages of figuring out how to make this work as good as we can. The Twitch stuff is really kind of funny for me. I just did it two years ago for fun because I play a lot of Call of Duty and I just play games, and I think sometimes we might say hilarious things. It’s all about building your brand.”

Said Karam: “I’ve been on iRacing since 2007 since it was in beta mode, so I’ve been a part of it for a long time. It just kind of always been the one I feel like when you go talk about major sim programs, it’s always the top one people talk about.

“I’ve just been a part of iRacing for a while and it’s cool to see the progression of it, just from even a few years back when you have world championship races that iRacing had put together and everybody would be running those, and now the amount of money that’s coming into sim racing. You look at the NASCAR world championship series presented by Coca Cola, it’s a $300,000 prize pool which is pretty incredible for sim racers. The money is starting to get pretty huge in Sim racing and people are starting to make a living more so than honestly real race car drivers. I’m not a full-time race car driver now, I’m part-time in the real world so it keeps me busy and it’s something fun, but I also take it serious because you can kind of make a living at it.”

dgoricki@detroitnews.com