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Penske hails iRacing impact on IndyCar: ‘It’s creating a lot of interest’

103rd Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MAY 26: Team owner Roger Penske celebrates after his driver Simon Pagenaud of France, driver of the #22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet wins the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 26, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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Roger Penske has become an avid viewer of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, and one driver in particular caught his eye at Michigan International Speedway (besides Team Penske winner Simon Pagenaud).

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s third place in his series debut had Penske thinking about translating virtual racing into the real world.

“The biggest news we had was when I got the call that Dale’s thinking about running, (and) I said, ‘How can we be sure he runs,’” Penske, who became the owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year, said during a visit to the Dale Jr. Download podcast this week (the conversation will air at 4 p.m. ET today on NBCSN). “I saw that Nationwide car. It was terrific.

WATCH: Roger Penske on The Dale Jr. Download today, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN

“I hope Dale you’re going to run again with us. I thought it was terrific for us, and I thank you for taking the time to join the IndyCar Series, and hey, maybe when you decide if you want to run there for real at the Indy 500, maybe you give me a call, we’ll see if we can’t get you a good car.”

Earnhardt laughed and told Penske, “If I ever did, you’d be the guy I’d call first!”

The NASCAR on NBC analyst won’t be racing Saturday in Round 4 at Twin Ring Motegi (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), but Earnhardt hinted he might return in the last two races.

Regardless, Penske still will be watching – and not just because his drivers are ranked in the top three spots of the unofficial points standings.

“With this technology we’ve had, people are taking it to the next level,” Penske said. “The iRacing guys have done a terrific job. The stick and ball sports can’t do this, can they? We’re unique in the case that we have this. It’s real. Will (Power), Scott (McLaughlin), (Simon) Pagenaud are on this for hours and are getting in trouble with their wives for spending so much time at the track.

“The technology has been terrific. But more important is I think what it’s done is kept us relevant because it keeps our drivers in social media talking about it, the cars, the sponsors. I think (that) is key. That’s giving us relevance, (putting) our model, our license in front of four fans, and it’s creating a lot of interest.”

The Michigan race averaged 202,000 viewers on NBCSN (peaking at 248,000), which was up 25 percent from the Barber Motorsports Park event the week before. The IndyCar iRacing Challenge was the No. 1 cable sports event in the 2:30-4 p.m. window Saturday.

Penske likes the audience metrics but cautions against too much of a good thing with IndyCar, NASCAR and IMSA all holding virtual races this week.

“One thing is we have to be careful we don’t oversaturate it,” he said. “We can’t run every single week with every driver. We talk about this internally, and we don’t want to cross pollinize, because I think NASCAR fans want to say, ‘What’s going on with the NASCAR people?’ At Indy, we wanted to have a couple of extra people to come in, invited guests like Dale and Jimmie (Johnson), that really makes a difference, but too much is too much.

“Let’s make these events real. Sooner or later, we’ll get too much of it. We want to keep it every time there is one, it’s something special.”