CONCORD, N.C. – Kimi Raikkonen could make more money and enjoy more international fame in Formula One, but like most racers it’s not what drives him. That’s why he’s the newest open wheel driver to migrate to NASCAR.
Raikkonen, who will make his Nationwide Series debut in today’s Top Gear 300 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, won a world F1 championship in 2007. Now he’s racing Rally cars with hopes of working his way into a Sprint Cup Series ride.
“For sure, it’s a different sport, different type of racing than what we have in Europe,” he said. “It’s very popular here and maybe it looks easy, but it’s not so easy to be fast. We’ll see how it goes and what the future will bring. We go step-by-step and see what happens.”
Raikkonen made his NASCAR debut last week in the truck series race at Charlotte. He started 31st and finished 15th on the lead lap. Like others before him. Raikkonen said he was compelled by the competitiveness in NASCAR.
Joe Nemechek and Kyle Busch worked together to make today’s race a possibility. Nemechek supplied the car; Busch brought most of the crew. Now it’s up to Raikkonen to do the rest.
“They needed to take about 500 pounds of right-rear spring out of that thing,” Carl Edwards said after watching Raikkonen in Thursday’s practice session. “He was loose and he was driving the wheels off it. I was just surprised. I didn’t know who was in that car. I had no clue, and then I saw that Perky Jerky on there and I thought it might be him, but he definitely has some car control, that’s for sure.
“That’s not lip service. That was pretty amazing. I might have seen smoke off the right-rear.”
Raikkonen already has tested a Sprint Cup car for Robby Gordon with hopes of driving in next month’s road course race at Infineon Raceway.
The Finnish driver isn’t the first driver from the world’s stage to wind up in NASCAR. Juan Pablo Montoya has found a home with Chip Ganassi Racing after winning seven F1 races, including the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and an Indy-car championship. Jacques Villeneuve, a former F1, Indy-car and Indianapolis 500 champion, still is trying to find substantial work in NASCAR. And for F1 driver Nelson Piquet Jr. currently drives in the truck series.
Gordon, Tony Stewart and Sam Hornish Jr. all came to NASCAR from Indy-cars. Danica Patrick is exploring a full-time move for 2012.
“Right now and after that I wasn’t really missing Formula 1,” Raikkonen said. “I wanted to try other things and I had the perfect opportunity to go and do Rally and learn that. Now I had time to come here and see how the NASCAR is. I’m happy how things pan out.
“I never really have said that I am never going to go back. Maybe I will never go or maybe I go. Only the future will tell. Like I said before, I have no plans for next year. I didn’t really have any plans for this year before January. It might take some time to know exactly what I will do.”
Qualifying is this morning at 10. The race starts at 2 p.m. ET on ABC.
While Raikkonen continues a trend of open wheel drivers heading to NASCAR, stock car racing doesn’t seem to have many defectors. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t curious.
“I would love to experience Monaco; also the Indy 500,” five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “As a kid growing up in Southern California, the Indy 500 was my dream. I don’t believe it’s in the cards for me, especially since I’ve started a family. But I love those cars. I love watching the events.”
Kevin Harvick owns truck and Nationwide series teams, so he knows the costs of going through the growing pains – especially with a driver who’s not used to driving a heavier, bulkier stock car.
“It calls for a lot of patience and a big check because with crashes comes costs,” he said.
PIT STOPS: Elliott Sadler will be ready to drive in relief for Paul Menard during Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 after Menard received 20 stitches in his right foot. He cut his foot on a dock at his home … There are two practice sessions scheduled today for the 600. The first is at 11:30 a.m. and the final one is at 1 … The speedway escaped major damage and injury from a line of severe thunderstorms and tornados that pushed through the Piedmont Thursday night.