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Raikkonen 15th in debut: Nationwide next?
21 May 2011
Kimi Raikkonen completed his NASCAR début, and if a 15th place isn't exactly going to set the world on fire then it's certainly a solid start to his Stateside motor racing experience. It's very much in line with the sort of experience of those who have tried to make the shift from F1 to US stock car racing in the past.
Raikkonen had qualified in 31st position at Charlotte Motor Speedway after struggling to get the handling where he wanted it, a loose truck seeing him power slide and scrape the wall during the earlier practice sessions on Friday.
Those problems persisted into the Friday night race itself, and early on Raikkonen brushed the wall out of turn 3 which served as a wake-up call for the Finn - although contact was light by NASCAR standards, it was the sort of hit that would have instantly wiped an F1 car out of a race at a circuit like Monaco, for example.
In a race that saw ten cautions - many of them involving some of the more senior and experienced drivers in NASCAR - Raikkonen was frustrated by the stop-start nature of proceedings.
A miscommunication with the pits at the start of the second caution saw Raikkonen fail to come down pit road when expected, and the team had to resort to Plan B of keeping him out on track and going off-sync. That left him facing a costly green flag pit stop on lap 51.
Fortunately Raikkonen's team owner Kyle Busch came to his aid, albeit unwittingly, when the #18 spun to bring out the fourth caution which allowed Raikkonen to pit and get back on to the same strategy as everyone else.
Conspiracy theorists who suggest that Kyle made the spin deliberately for his team mate forget just how highly competitive he is: Busch clearly had his eyes set on the race win and in particular on beating the #2 truck out front driven by Clint Bowyer (who by coincidence is starting alongside Busch on the front row of Saturday night's All-Star event) and wasn't about to do anything to endanger his own chances if he could avoid it. Sure enough, Kyle put himself in a position to overtake Bowyer on lap 128 and keep hold of it till the chequered flag to record his 28th Truck victory in 91 starts.
That fortuitous pit stop put Raikkonen back out in 14th and he continued to circulate for the rest of the race in about that position, surviving a second (and harder) skirmish with the wall which he really feared might have done for the truck but good this time; and a close call in the final laps when a truck spun right in front of him, which he managed to avoid hitting.
All in all it was a better outcome than Raikkonen had been expecting, given what he felt had been a disappointing performance in practice and qualifying earlier in the day. "I wanted to see how it is, how it feels. If I suck, there's no reason to come back," Raikkonen had earlier told his first full NASCAR press conference, adding: "We'll see how it goes."
Now he had, what was the verdict? "The racing was fun, it's a new thing. But too many cautions," he said, adding that everytime he got the handling where he wanted it, a caution would come out and he would have to start all over again.
"Actually it was more fun than I expected, the racing," said Raikkonen. "For sure there's still a lot to learn and improve but I think we didn't have any major issues so it was okay."
Afterwards there seemed to be a big hint of a major twist in the tale regarding Raikkonen's Great American Adventure, with hints that Kimi might be moving more quickly into the next NASCAR series up than expected.
Raikkonen let slip that he hoped to run in a Nationwide car at the same venue next week - "We'll see", he told the reporters when asked about the chance - but Kyle Busch had been evasive when questioned on the point.
"We don't have a Nationwide Series license [at Kyle Busch Motorsports], and our crew guys aren't licensed for the Nationwide Series or anything," Busch said. "It would have to be with somebody else."
So what's that Nationwide series Toyota doing in the KBM garage?
"I don't own it," Busch said. "You'll find out next week."
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