As the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge leaves the United States for the first time Saturday, April 18, three fan favorites of American motorsports who are new to the virtual racing series are coming along for the ride.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, 2017 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Takuma Sato and two-time reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch will make their respective series debuts in the Firestone 175 on the 1.549-mile oval at Twin Ring Motegi in Motegi, Japan.
The fourth of six rounds in the series featuring NTT INDYCAR SERIES stars and special guest drivers will be the second straight event on an oval, with a series-high field of 33 drivers ready to race for 113 laps on the tricky, asymmetrical oval that hosted INDYCAR races from 1998-2011. The race starts at 2:30 p.m. ET, with live coverage on NBCSN.
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Castroneves joins the series in the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet with a certain distinction besides having his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy three times, more than any other driver in the field. He is one of three drivers in the Firestone 175 who has won at Twin Ring Motegi in NTT INDYCAR SERIES competition, capturing victories there in 2006 and 2010 for Team Penske.
Other Motegi race winners competing Saturday are Scott Dixon in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (2009 and 2011 Motegi winner) and Tony Kanaan in the No. 14 7-Eleven Chevrolet (2007 Motegi winner).
2017 "500" winner Sato will make his INDYCAR iRacing Challenge debut in the No. 30 Panasonic/Keihin Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. While this is Sato's first race in this series, he knows Twin Ring Motegi well. Japanese native Sato has two career NTT INDYCAR SERIES starts at the track, in 2010 and 2011, and he also has visited the actual circuit for the annual Honda Thanks Day every year since his 2017 Indy victory.
The addition of Castroneves and Sato increases the number of Indianapolis 500 winners in the Firestone 175 field to eight, along with Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Alexander Rossi.
Two-time Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard winner Busch is the latest NASCAR star to join the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge. He will drive the No. 51 Rowdy Energy Dallara as the lone NASCAR representative at Motegi in his INDYCAR debut, virtual or real.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson raced in the first two rounds, on March 28 at Watkins Glen International and April 4 at Barber Motorsports Park. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third April 11 in the first oval race of the series, at Michigan International Speedway.
NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Rinus VeeKay is the fourth newcomer to the series in the Motegi field. He will drive the No. 21 SONAX Chevrolet fielded by Ed Carpenter Racing.
All newcomers - and most of the rest of the field - will have their eyes on the Team Penske trio of Scott McLaughlin, Power and Pagenaud.
Two-time and reigning Virgin Australia Supercars champion McLaughlin, from New Zealand, has the best overall record in the series in the No. 2 Shell V-Power Team Penske Dallara, finishing fourth at Watkins Glen, winning at Barber and placing second at Michigan. Veteran sim racer McLaughlin has produced this impressive record despite competing in series races during the middle of the night in Australia, where he lives.
2014 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion and 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner Power is just behind McLaughlin in terms of strike rate. Another experienced sim racer, he has finished third at Watkins Glen, second at Barber and fourth at Michigan in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet and is aiming to become the third Penske driver to win in this series.
2016 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion and reigning Indy 500 winner Pagenaud was the latest Team Penske driver to take the checkered flag, using patience and deft fuel strategy to win last Saturday, April 11 at Michigan in the No. 22 DXC Team Penske Chevrolet. The victory marked the pinnacle of a climb of steady improvement for the Frenchman, as he finished sixth at Watkins Glen and fifth at Barber.
While recent results may not indicate it, INDYCAR and Indianapolis 500 veteran Sage Karam must be considered another favorite for victory at Motegi.
Vastly experienced and successful iRacing competitor Karam is the only driver to lead laps in all three races of this virtual series, also winning the opener at Watkins Glen in the No. 24 DRR WIX Filters Chevrolet. He also has led the most laps in all three races, pacing a dominant 116 of the 175 combined laps so far (66 percent).
Karam finished 27th at Barber after a collision while dueling with position with Felix Rosenqvist's No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda midway through the race, and he ended up 14th at Michigan due to a spin in traffic while climbing back toward the front after an early pit stop.
Threading the needle in traffic will be a primary concern for all contenders, as thickets of cars should form in the big field on an oval approximately a half-mile shorter than last week's thrilling race at Michigan. The fuel window is expected to be approximately 40 laps, creating a two-stop race that will add plenty of strategic options.
The starting lineup will be set through a 10-minute qualifying session prior to the event.
Two races remain in the six-round series after Saturday, the Circuit of the Americas on April 25 and a non-INDYCAR "Dream" track May 2. he INDYCAR iRacing Challenge will not crown an overall champion but will add a special element where INDYCAR will make a donation to one of its partner charities.