Wednesday, Feb 08

After two unexpected winners to open the 2020 IndyCar IRacing Challenge, 31 drivers are expected to participate Saturday as the online exhibition circus heads to virtual Michigan International Speedway for the Chevrolet 275.

Unlike the opening two stanzas at the Watkins Glen and Barber Motorsports Park road course layouts, the two-mile, D-shaped oval should see a new set of challengers steal the headlines. How Sage Karam of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Team Penske's Scott McLaughiln deal with the new surroundings will be the primary focus. Prior to the selection of Watkins Glen as the opening venue, which was done via a fan vote, the Nazareth, Pennsylvania based Karambwas notable for not being keen about starting the series on an oval track. That feeling was shown in full force at the upstate New York venue where he won from the pole position and he seemed to be on the verge of happening again last Saturday in Alabama, until contact with Chip Ganassi Racing's Felix Rosenqvist halted his progress. With Karam out of the picture, it was McLaughlin, the multi-time Australian SuperCars title holder who took over the point, via a cleverly planned pit stop strategy. Although seemingly home free after wresting the lead from Andretti Autosport's Scott Speed, the relative newcomer to IndyCar competition still had to hold a determined teammate in Will Power to score the triumph. Like Karam, the New Zealander is limited in high-speed oval action, but he has shown to be a fast learner in other IRacing formats.

If questions linger about what Karam and McLaughlin could achieve at Michigan, the scenarios could be tailor-made for Power, who two years ago broke through to win the Indianapolis 500. Although in literally a similar trench in terms of high speed ovals early in his IndyCar tenure, the Aussie has been one of the best on the left-hander only result earners over the past three seasons. While the chauffeur of the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet is perhaps the leader of the old guard, he may not the lone veteran to fly the flag on Saturday. Arch-rival Scott Dixon made solid progress in his maiden IRacing voyage in Alabama last week and could be a step ahead of most, considering he is one of the few drivers to actually race an IndyCar at MIS in real-life. Two other hard chargers who also fit into this elite club are A.J. Foyt Racing's Tony Kanaan and owner-driver Ed Carpenter. The Brazilian is still learning the nuances of IRacing in general, but could be aided on a track type that he has excelled upon since joining SuperTex's organization in 2018. Carpenter, the native of Indianapolis, survived his trial by fire in online racing this past week, earning praise after a hotly contested test event at virtual Indianapolis Motor Speedway, running in the top-five until being collected in a late-race accident in turn four. A more focused attitude toward the IRacing Challenge compared to some could allow the three-time Indy 500 pole winner to enjoy a breakout effort after 275 miles.

Several drivers new to the virtual IndyCar world this week are Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay, who takes the wheel of his own No. 28 DHL Honda, after the team's Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires prospect Kyle Kirkwood flew the colors in the opening two efforts. RHR's teammate Marco Andretti also will make his 2020 IRacing debut at Michigan Saturday, after getting his feet wet in the same virtual Indy test race that featured the aforementioned Ed Carpenter. The No. 98 entry joins round three with some momentum after Scott Speed's solid top-five showing last week in Alabama. 

However, the majority of race fans tuning into NBCSN's coverage of the event will be greatly interested in the progress of former NASCAR Cup star Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who will try his luck in an open-wheel car for the first time on Saturday. The two-time Daytona 500 champion takes over the stock car representation from Jimmie Johnson, who entered his No. 48 Chevrolet in both events at Watkins Glen and Alabama to open the virtual exhibition league. 

While high speed action will be expected on Saturday, the aggressive nature of IndyCar IRacing action on the ovals in recent trial events not associated with the actual exhibition league, seem to tip the hand that cautions could dominate the proceedings. The 250-mile test race at the Brickyard was filled with extended pace truck action, as was a 500-kilometer at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis held a day after the Watkins Glen opener. If a similar story line takes hold at Michigan, track position and pit strategy could ultimately determine the winner, along with simply surviving the drama. 

After a successful debut last Saturday at virtual Watkins Glen International, the NTT IndyCar Series' online circus heads to Barber Motorsports Park for its second of a planned six events as the world awaits clearance on the current Covid-19 pandemic. The first race, which drew a sizable viewing audience on YouTube, moves to mainstream on NBC Sports Network with a scheduled 2:30 p.m. eastern start time.

While several unknown scenarios were on the minds of most entering action in the Empire State, the focus at the Birmingham, Alabama facility will be centered on who can compete with the IRacing Challenge's current rabbit, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Sage Karam. The Pennsylvania-native controlled the proceedings in the opening stanza, winning the pole position and taking the fight to the remainder of the grid from the word go, leading 43 of the event's 45 laps. Only an honest chase from Chip Ganassi Racing's Felix Rosenqvist and a near-miss of a spinning Kyle Kirkwood kept the final outcome in doubt.

The Swedish second-year wheelman however, is not alone in the pursuit of the No. 24 WIX Filters Chevrolet. Third-place finisher at the Glen Will Power and his Team Penske teammate Scott McLaughlin, who placed fourth last Saturday should also influence the action upfront this weekend, while the event could signal redemption for both Andretti Autosport's Scott Speed and Dale Coyne Racing's Santino Ferrucci. Speed, the former Formula One ace with Scuderia Toro Rosso was among the top-five for most of the first 25 laps last weekend, only to drop from contention after a spin into the barriers exiting The Boot. Ferrucci, the reigning IndyCar Rookie of the Year, failed to post a qualifying time and had to fight through traffic and carnage from start to finish, eventually settling for an eighth-place result.

While each of the 24 runners at Watkins Glen are all expected to return at Barber, the apple cart could also be influenced by five newcomers. Meyer-Shank Racing's Jack Harvey and a recuperating Robert Wickens should be ready to go to battle this weekend, after a lack of equipment kept both pilots out of action for round one. Internet connection trouble also prevented Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe from taking the green flag in New York, but the popular veteran will be ready to pounce likewise at Barber. Two late additions to the lineup are five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon and three-time Indy 500 pole winner Ed Carpenter. Dixon impressed in Thursday testing and could be right upfront with Ganassi teammate Rosenqvist. Carpenter joins ECR teammate Conor Daly in the field, but will need to shake off the rust of not having competed on a road course in seven years.

Although the online debut act in New York was a limited challenge for most, the difficulty is expected to ramp up in Alabama. Despite having several quick sections like Watkins Glen, Barber Motorsports Park also throws several technical sections into play that allow little to zero margin of error. Expect a large chunk of the drama in terms of overtaking to occur at the end of the pit straight and on the run into the Charlotte's Web hairpin. Getting off the final corner flat-out or close to it is key to setting up a chance to gain ground entering turn one. The downhill, banked left-hander provides extra road to bail out those who overcook the entry, but will definitely encourage aggression from the drop of the green flag. As for the hairpin, named for the large spider statue beyond the outer barriers of the complex, a solid exit out of the right turn at number two will allow for a shot to move up in the standings and perhaps offer the last realistic chance to pass over the course of a full lap. The rest of the venue provides the aforementioned technical savvy of the course, where passing may only be possible if the lead driver makes a major mistake.

With passing at a premium in Alabama, earning a high starting position on the grid is essential to creating the path to a good result. However, even the front row starters are not out of the woods in principle. While having a fast car is a plus, being able to handle lapped traffic in a safe and patient manner could ultimately determine the outright winner on Saturday.


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