Monday, October 2, 2023

Former F1 world champion Kimi Raikkonen sees no negatives in making first NASCAR Cup Series start

While building a legendary career as a world champion driver in Formula 1, Finland’s Kimi Raikkonen also built a legendary persona as “The Iceman.” On his way to 21 career wins in F1 and the 2007 world championship, Raikkonen carried himself in a blunt and plain-speaking manner, best encapsulated in classic radio soundbites like, “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” over the course of his Grand Prix career.

Considering that persona developed in an international setting, it could easily be said that Raikkonen was out of his element racing a NASCAR Cup Series car at Watkins Glen. However, Raikkonen was very much in-character when asked why he would take the risk of trying — and potentially failing in — NASCAR.

“I don’t see any risk,” Raikkonen said. “Why not?”

After retiring from Formula 1 at the end of the 2021 season, Raikkonen is making his NASCAR Cup Series debut this weekend as the very first driver for Trackhouse Racing’s Project91 for international drivers. Although Raikkonen has previous experience in NASCAR, having raced a pair of one-off starts in the Xfinity and Truck Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2011, his trip to Watkins Glen marks his very first try at the very highest level in all of stock car racing.

For the 42-year-old Finn, the challenge of this weekend stems from trying to do as well as he can given what limits existed in how he could prepare. With testing in NASCAR heavily regulated and restricted, Raikkonen’s most extensive experience behind the wheel of a Cup car came last week in a NASCAR-run Select Driver Orientation test at Virginia International Raceway. Raikkonen drove a generic Next Gen car rather than the Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet he is piloting this weekend.

I think we prepared as well as we could for a limited amount of anything … It’s quite a challenge, but it’s also exciting,” Raikkonen said. “We’ll see where we stack up. I’m sure the very fast guys here, they do it as a professional for years. So it will be very hard, but we’ll see what we can do.”

Considering his lack of experience in stock cars, Raikkonen ended up doing quite well in Saturday’s practice and qualifying session. After posting the 20th-fastest time in practice, Raikkonen qualified 27th for Sunday’s Go Bowling at the Glen and posted a faster lap time than several full-time Cup competitors.

Coincidentally, that qualifying result mirrors the 27th-place finish Raikkonen posted in his lone Xfinity start all those years ago — a result that illustrated just how competitive NASCAR is, and how difficult it is for even a world-class driver of Raikkonen’s caliber to run with those who race stock cars for a living. For some, that risk of failing may be enough to scare them away and prevent them from leaving their comfort zone, lest they sustain some blow to their personas or egos as racing stars.

True to form, though, Raikkonen is unrestrained by such concerns.

“What do I have to lose? What, that I’ve done bad in (a) NASCAR race or bad in any race?” Raikkonen asked. “I don’t care. I do it for myself. Good or bad the end result, it could happen. Even if I did 20 races, they all could be bad for many different reasons. I don’t see any negative.”

While Raikkonen’s entry has highlighted an exciting international weekend for NASCAR — a record seven different countries are represented in Sunday’s starting field — he shared that he does not have any plans for any future NASCAR races past this weekend. Raikkonen will be the lone international driver to race for Trackhouse’s Project91 this season, but car owner Justin Marks stated  the organization is looking to run the program in anywhere from six to eight races next year, with a focus on road courses as well as major events like the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600.

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