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AP photo by Terry Renna / Dale Earnhardt Jr., a nominee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame's 2021 class, finished third Saturday as he competed in an IndyCar iRacing event for the first time.

IndyCar's virtual return to Michigan International Speedway mimicked the U.S. 500 at the start when the current open-wheel racing stars mismanaged the green flag and triggered a spectacular crash.

The accident in the opening seconds of the Chevrolet 275 iRacing event gave Saturday's competition, though conducted remotely and digitally, a throwback feel. When CART fractured and IndyCar was born, the CART teams boycotted the Indianapolis 500 and instead raced at Michigan. The alternative 1996 race opened with a huge wreck that only punctuated the absurdity of the split in American open-wheel racing.

So when multiple cars crashed before even reaching the virtual start/finish line Saturday, IndyCar was briefly scrambling for the reset button.

"Stay with us, guys! Stay with us!" driver Conor Daly pleaded on his streaming service as iRacing officials sorted out the mess.

"It's going to be great. Once the McLaren cars have crashed," promised Daly.

The virtual cleanup took time as drivers lobbied race control to delay the green so they could finish their tows and rejoin the field. An official finally told them to be quiet.

"The show is more important than where you guys finish in the race. I'm sorry, we will debrief after the race," the drivers were told by an iRacing official, who also said no more cautions would be called.

And so they tried again with the third event of this virtual racing series created to give IndyCar content during the sports shutdown from the coronavirus pandemic. IndyCar's season was suspended 48 hours before its scheduled opener last month.

Michigan was the first oval track on IndyCar's virtual schedule, and reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud won the race. IndyCar has not actually raced at Michigan since 2007, and only five of the drivers in the virtual return had ever raced the track before.

"This is the most stressful I've ever felt in a race car," Pagenaud said without a hint of sarcasm.

He competed wearing his actual firesuit, and his wife handed him a bottle of congratulatory champagne as the Frenchman took the virtual checkered flag.

The race featured a a guest appearance from avid iRacer and new NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Dale Earnhardt Jr., who lobbied for a spot in the Michigan field and received one from IndyCar. As he slid into his simulator for the race, broadcast live on NBC Sports, his gaming skills and experience at Michigan showed.

Earnhardt, who works as an analyst for NBC, finished a surprising third, behind the Team Penske duo of Pagenaud and Scott McLaughlin, the winner of last weekend's iRacing event at virtual Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.

"I was trying at the end to hold off Dale Jr. I never thought I'd say that," said McLaughlin, the Australian V8 SuperCars champion competing from a simulator in Brisbane at daybreak local time.

Earnhardt saved fuel and used patience to score the podium finish.

"I had fun racing all those guys — a lot of them were pretty ticked off how the strategy worked out after that crash," Earnhardt said. "The fastest cars probably didn't win today, and the best (simulator) racers probably didn't win today."

Earnhardt said he would compete in an IndyCar iRace again, especially if it's on an oval, and he lobbied for both Daytona and Indianapolis.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson did not compete. Johnson entered the first two IndyCar iRacing events as he plans for future real IndyCar racing, but he has said he won't race ovals in an Indy car in real life, a sentiment that apparently carried over to his simulated car.

The field had a whopping 31 entrants, the most yet in this series, as Andretti Autosport got its full driver lineup into the race. Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay made their IndyCar iRacing debuts Saturday, along with James Davison and Max Chilton, who stopped racing ovals in real life the middle of last season.

Robert Wickens was in the field for the second straight week after initial problems in getting him a simulator and steering wheel he could control with his hands. Wickens injured his spinal cord in a 2018 crash in an IndyCar race and needed a special wheel to be able to participate. Max Papis' company sent him one that he was able to connect to use at Michigan for a 26th-place finish.

Sage Karam won IndyCar's first iRacing event and led the most laps at Michigan, but he pitted from the lead for fuel with 14 laps remaining. Will Power inherited the lead but also had to stop, and Pagenaud pounced to move to the front.

 

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