Nearly a year after winning the biggest oval race of them all, Simon Pagenaud continued his mastery of virtual circle tracks by taking the checkered flag at the Firestone 175 on Saturday, April 18 at Twin Ring Motegi.
2019 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Pagenaud edged five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon by .3429 of a second after a spellbinding duel in the wild closing 10 laps of the 113-lap race. Pagenaud averaged 177.345 mph in the No. 22 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet.
This was Pagenaud's second consecutive victory in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge. 2016 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Pagenaud also won the Chevrolet 275 on April 11 at Michigan International Speedway, the first oval event in the six-event virtual racing series.
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"Today was a lot about tire saving, the right strategy once again," said Pagenaud, who competed while wearing his real racing suit. "At the end it got a bit crazy. Yeah, what's fun to me, it's actually that you're racing the exact same guys as usual, exact same moves as you would in real life. You keep turning your wheels in your head.
"Right now we're not racing (on real tracks), so we're racing (virtually) on the weekend. That gives me a lot of joy. The adrenaline was definitely at the maximum level at the end of the race."
2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Dixon recorded his best finish in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. He joined the series in Round 2 on April 4 at Barber Motorsports Park, with his previous best result 16th at that race.
2014 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Will Power finished third in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, as Team Penske drivers took two of the three podium spots. 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner Power continued to flex his experienced sim racing muscles mixed with a twinge of frustration, as he has finished third, second, fourth and third, respectively, in the first four rounds. He led a race-high 61 laps.
Marcus Ericsson placed fourth in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Pole sitter Robert Wickens rallied from early contact to finish fifth in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.
Dixon pulled up to Pagenaud's gearbox as the white flag flew for the final trip around the 1.52-mile oval, which hosted INDYCAR events annually from 1998-2010. Dixon then pounced at an opening at the bottom of Turn 1 of the egg-shaped oval, trying to dive under Pagenaud for the lead and possible victory.
Pagenaud defended vigorously, and the front right tire of Dixon's machine nearly brushed the rear left tire of Pagenaud's car as Dixon's car wiggled, blunting Dixon's challenge. Pagenaud then hung on in the final three turns for the win.
"Honestly, what happened at the end, I didn't know we were racing actually for the lead," Dixon said. "I thought we were racing for second place. I was so focused on trying to get to the end, I didn't even know we were racing for the win.
"Everybody's racing hard. I thought it was awesome. It was a great show, a lot of fun. I think it was exciting. Simon did a hell of a job. That's what it takes at the end to win, is you got to take risks. Kudos to them. It was fun to be a part of it and fun to watch."
Pagenaud took the lead for good on Lap 106, driving past Power while running in a thicket of lapped traffic after a spirited battle between the two teammates.
Power was ripe for the passing due to front-wing damage suffered in an incident while leading a lap earlier when he got tangled in a collision with Team Penske teammate Scott McLaughlin, running second, and the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet of NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Oliver Askew, who slid up the track and hit leader Power while racing hard to stay on the lead lap. Power's car, running in the middle between Askew and McLaughlin, then hip-checked McLaughlin's car hard into the SAFER Barrier.
"I saw it happening," Pagenaud said. "He (Askew) came out of the pits on new tires right next to me. We had a bit of a battle, as well. Kind of touched a little bit. I let him by because I could see he was very aggressive and on new tires.
"My hope was that I was going to use his draft to get back to Scott and Will. Then he wiped them out. After that it was hard with Will. So much understeer, I chose the outside lane, which probably wasn't smart. So, yeah, I thought that was Dixon's win right there. We managed to come out of it and get another very strong result for Team Penske."
Power tried to hold off the charging Pagenaud after the incident with Askew and McLaughlin, banging wheels with his teammate and keeping control of his machine despite missing part of his front wing. But that resistance ended up being futile, as Pagenaud and Dixon powered past.
"Yeah, Pagenaud was glued to my side pod," Power said. "What's going on (laughter)? He told me I had damage. I didn't know I had damage. He's like, 'Dude, you've got damage.'
"That's what lost us the race, basically. We couldn't battle for the win anymore. Yeah, missing half a front wing, I was pushing a lot, obviously. I was happy to hang on for third. That showed how much of a gap we'd pulled on the whole field that I could just nurse it home and have another third place. Real consistent for me week in and week out."
McLaughlin's No. 2 Shell V-Power Team Penske Dallara suffered heavy damage in the late incident, and he was credited with 24th place. It was Round 2 winner McLaughlin's first finish outside of the top four in the series.
Power, McLaughlin and Pagenaud took over the top three spots when Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden pitted from the lead in the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet with 14 laps remaining. Newgarden was on a different fuel strategy from his teammates and trying to stretch fuel or get a late-race caution to make it to the finish, but he was forced to stop when that ploy proved fruitless.
Australian Power and New Zealander Dixon battled for position after the first round of mass pit stops, which were finished just before the halfway point of the race. McLaughlin chose to sit back in third, conserving fuel and tires.
The lead trio pitted for the second and final time on Lap 87, with Dixon leading Power and McLaughlin. Power and McLaughlin jumped Dixon in the pits after inexperienced sim racer Dixon drove through his pit box and had to back up, setting up the order for the final 26-lap dash to the checkered.
Two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch finished 13th in the No. 51 Rowdy Energy Dallara in his series debut. Another series debutant, 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato, finished 12th in the No. 30 Panasonic/Keihin Honda.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves placed 29th in the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet in his series debut, three laps down, after suffering damage in an early crash.
Two more races remain in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge, at Circuit of the Americas on Saturday, April 25 and at a non-INDYCAR "Dream" track Saturday, May 2.
The 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.