Watch: Scott McLaughlin claims podium in dramatic virtual IndyCar oval debut
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While Scott McLaughlin's proper IndyCar oval racing debut in May has been postponed, this morning the Kiwi was able to show impressive ability in the online equivalent — finishing in second place at Michigan International Raceway. The result sees McLaughlin surface as a serious championship contender, following his fourth and first-place finishes at the first two events.
Running a conservative fuel strategy late in the race, McLaughlin was the late beneficiary of a raft of drivers pitting in the closing laps for fuel. As drivers like Zach Veach and Kyle Kaiser either stopped for fuel or simply ran out, McLaughlin cycled from the bottom of the top 10 to second. He finished behind Penske Racing teammate Simon Pagenaud, who claimed his first win of the series by over 10 seconds.
Racing in Snap On Tools colours, McLaughlin was forced somewhat to run an alternate strategy after being involved in a crash on the lap one start-line. He had started the race from fourth position, alongside Felipe Nasr and behind Marcus Ericsson and another Penske teammate in Will Power.
The Supercars champ appeared to hesitate slightly on the start while, similarly, McLaren driver Oliver Askew jumped aggressively two rows back. The resulting chain reaction saw both drivers sandwich Ganassi driver Felix Rosenqvist, triggering heavy damage for all three and a large multi-car crash.
It forced a long recovery through the pack as the 85-lap race wore on. While he was outside the top 20, Power and Sage Karam traded the race lead numerous times during a surprisingly caution-free mid-race phase. The lead changes were never ending, with Nasr, James Davison, and Graham among the drivers knocking on the door of the pairing behind.
Davison and Nasr lost time with spins in pit-lane during the pit cycle, leaving Power and Karam to continue on with their brawl. The field had divided itself into two packs; the leaders running quick laps, and a group further back that were saving fuel to ensure a run to the finish.
Karam's race was shot with 14 laps to go; forced to pit realising he wasn't going to make it to the end. Power, Rahal, and others followed suit over the following laps, shuffling the order heavily. With five laps to go, Veach led over Ryan Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud, with McLaughlin in sixth, but that order too would change.
McLaughlin took fifth (which eventually became the battle for second) off NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr with a slick move into turn one. With Veach stopping for fuel on the penultimate lap and Kaiser running out of fuel on the last lap, it cleared the way for McLaughlin to sneak by and grab second place; 13 seconds behind winner Pagenaud.
"I got unlucky at the start, and then we got the right pit play there at the end with my spotter TJ and my engineer Jonathon," said McLaughlin. "They were punching numbers and it really worked out good just saving fuel. I managed to pass [Earnhardt Jr] with a few laps to go ... I never thought I'd say that, which is pretty cool. It was a lot of fun racing him.
"I did a few practice races during the week, and that was good for me to learn. I'm actually really enjoying learning how everyone races and how to listen to a spotter. It's the first time I've really done that."
Power ended up finishing in fourth despite the extra pit-stop, ahead of Rahal, Jack Harvey, Alexander Rossi, Hunter-Reay, Ed Carpenter, and Alex Palou. Scott Dixon, meanwhile, retired after being involved in the first-lap crash.
Round four of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge will continue next weekend at a yet-to-be-selected 'Driver's Choice' circuit, with the expectation that it will be an oval.