In welcoming their former sparring-partner Kimi Raikkonen to NASCAR, Juan-Pablo Montoya has asserted that drivers in the series are consistently 'underrated' and that the sport is far more popular internationally than many in F1 choose to believe, with Nelsinho Piquet going so far as to accuse grand prix stars of being 'scared' of making the leap.
It was confirmed at the weekend that 2007 F1 World Champion Raikkonen will campaign a Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota Tundra in 'three-to-five races' of the 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series [see separate story – click here
]. Whilst questioning his choice of Charlotte Motor Speedway for his NCWTS bow next month, Montoya – who partnered Raikkonen at McLaren-Mercedes from 2005 to midway through 2006 – reckons the development is a sign of NASCAR's ever-expanding global reach.
“My first choice wouldn't be Charlotte, to start my first race,” reflected the Colombian, who made his own stock car debut in an ARCA outing at Talladega in October, 2006, “but I think it would be cool if he comes here – he's a cool guy and I think he would fit right in.
“The series is a lot higher than people think it is. I think people here are underrated at our level against worldwide. I think maybe if you would get the numbers of how many people internationally are watching these [NASCAR] races not only in America but in Europe and Asia, you would shock yourself. I think they are pretty amazing.
“People in F1 are very selfish – they think there is nothing better out there. You look from technology-wise, there's not, but [regarding] the actual racing, [NASCAR] is exciting. It's exciting to watch; it's exciting to be here. When you hear about ovals and sometimes you watch them, the first time you watch it by yourself, 'oh yeah, it's a circle', but if you come and actually see how fast we're going in real life, they go, 'oh yeah, that's a lot faster than people think it is'.
“People are watching. Over the last few years when I came over, people started paying attention to how I ran and I think a lot of people got hooked on it. I still receive e-mails from people from F1 [saying], 'good luck in the race, great qualifying'. It's like, 'oh, you're paying attention'. That is surprising.”
Montoya did warn Raikkonen, however, that he would need to adopt a different mindset to that which carried him to 18 grand prix victories between 2003 and 2009, cautioning: “When you're young, you take every lap like it's the last lap – when you go out and try to do that here, you're not going to blend in and you're not going to do well. When you learn to take care of the car, be smart and make moves when you have to make moves, or learn to give up a place or two when you have to, it's part of learning to be in NASCAR. When you understand the system, it works really well.”
Four-time Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) Series Champion Jeff Gordon agreed that NASCAR's newest recruit needs to take things steady to begin with, but he is confident the Finn is adopting the right approach by bedding himself in gently.
“I can't believe it,” the Californian confessed. “I think it says a lot about NASCAR that somebody like him is coming here. I admire him for wanting to take the step and go truck racing and not just jump in a Cup car. I think, obviously, the word is out there to the best drivers in the world that if you think you are just going to come in here and jump in a Cup car and be competitive, you are kidding yourself.