Formula 1 world champion Kimi Raikkonen approached his NASCAR Cup debut with the same calmness that became his trademark throughout his career, and he adapted quickly to the series on Sunday at Watkins Glen International, even blocking regular season champion Chase Elliott at one point during the 90-lap Go Bowling at The Glen.
“I thought he did great,” Elliott said. “He was right in the middle of the mess there and looked like he was right at home, so I thought that was really cool.”
Entering the event, Raikkonen was realistic. He knew he could have a bad day as well as a good one and he experienced both on the 2.45-mile road course before a wreck sidelined him after 44 laps.
“I don’t know what happened in front of the car,” Raikkonen said calmly after walking out of the infield care center. “I had a good line going there. They all pushed kinda of right inside. I kept (my) tight line. When they told me that someone spun in front of the cars everybody kind of came left and hit me on the side. There was nothing I could have done.
“The first hit on my car spun the wheel in my hands. Something went wrong in the wrist, but I will fix it when I get back home. It’s a part of the game.”
Raikkonen — the first driver in Trackhouse Racing’s PROJECT91 program designed to bring international drivers to the NASCAR Cup Series — qualified his Chevrolet 27th. A rainstorm that moved through the area at race time resulted in the cars starting on rain tires and Raikkonen’s experience on a wet track paid off. He needed only four laps to crack the top 20 and by lap 10 he had maneuvered his way into the top 15. Three laps after taking over 14th, Raikkonen’s crew called him to pit road to change the tires to slicks, those used in dry weather. When Stage 1 ended on lap 20, Raikkonen was 19th.
Raikkonen, here chatting with TrackHouse Racing teammate Daniel Suarez, enjoyed his Cup debut but isn’t yet sure whether he’d consider another, Motorsport Images
When Stage 2 began, Raikkonen was 10th and on lap 24 he had taken over ninth place. He ran as high as eighth before a pit stop with three laps remaining in Stage 2 shuffled him back to 28th. He restarted the final Stage in 22nd, but the four-car incident on lap 45 in which he was involved with Austin Dillon, Ross Chastain and Loris Hezemans ended the Finland native’s day.
Raikkonen said he enjoyed “everything” about the NASCAR Cup experience, but he didn’t know if he would consider returning for another race.
“I have nothing against it,” the 42-year-old Raikkonen said. “It was all good and they were very nice and helpful. We just ended up at the wrong place.
“I felt we had very good speed, especially after the pit stops, but maybe I was a bit too harsh on tires on one of the sets.”
Still, Raikkonen’s quick adaptation showed the Next Gen car definitely makes it easier for drivers from other series to enter NASCAR’s top level.