Simon Pagenaud played the fuel strategy game to perfection Saturday and captured the virtual Chevy 275 at Michigan International Speedway.
Starting 22nd in the third IndyCar iRacing Challenge series event, the 2019 Indy 500 winner was never a factor until it counted. As race-long pacesetters Sage Karam and Will Power pitted late for fuel, Pagenaud picked off drivers ahead of him one at a time. With 10 laps to go he was third, then second with five remaining, and he took the top spot with three laps left as leader Ryan Hunter-Reay was forced to stop.
“Full credit to Ben (Bretzman, engineer),” said the 35-year-old Frenchman after taking the checkered flag 13 seconds ahead of Penske teammate Scott McLaughlin. “We didn’t have the pace in qualifying so we went to Option B which was to save fuel and preserve the tires; and it turned out to be perfect.
“We worked hard to understand this kind of racing and what kind of strategies go into it.”
It was the second-straight iRacing victory for a Team Penske Chevy and mirrored McLaughlin’s win at Barber, where he also used smart fuel strategy and pace to christen his rookie season over here.
McLaughlin parlayed that same combination Saturday to finish second, as did former NASCAR star and NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. who wound up third.
“I passed Dale Junior with three laps to go — I never thought I’d ever say that,” said Kiwi McLaughlin, the Australian Supercars champion. “But it was enjoyable for my first oval race.”
Power recovered from his late pit stop to take fourth and Graham Rahal was fifth in a computer race that started off very much like the real thing back in 1996 at the inaugural and destructive U.S. 500: A multi-car crash as the field accelerated to the green flag involved at least 10 cars and ruined the races of Scott Dixon, Oliver Askew, Robert Wickens, Josef Newegarden and Marco Andretti.
Karam, pole-sitter of the first two iRaces and winner at Watkins Glen, started ninth but had the lead by Lap 10 and spent most of the afternoon trading it with Power. But a late accident dropped him to 14th place.
Next week’s race will be at a random-draw track before the series heads to COTA and then finishes on May 2 at a non-IndyCar dream track.