This weekend marks the highly-anticipated NASCAR Cup Series debut for the former Formula One driver Räikkönen, who will be driving the No. 91 Project 91 Chevrolet for Trackhouse Racing.
The 41-year old former world champion was careful to be modest and realistic in his expectations for the race, considering he has had only limited track time in a NASCAR Cup Series car. He was allotted a practice session last week at Virginia International Raceway – not in a Trackhouse car – and of course, had a single practice session and qualifying at Watkins Glen on Saturday.
The Finnish driver, who has two previous career NASCAR starts – in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series in 2011 – was a respectable 13th fastest in the Group B qualifying session and will start the No. 91 Chevy from 27th position.
“Obviously, I wish I had more laps, I’m not sure what line to take and trying to put laps together,’’ Räikkönen said after qualifying, “But it was fun.”
“We’ve just to make sure we know the rules and not making any silly mistakes on that side,’’ he added. “We’ll see what we can do with the car and move up from where we started.’’
It was typical of the measured approach the 2007 F1 World Champion.
“It’s a new experience,’’ Räikkönen said in a trackside press conference prior to qualifying on Saturday. “I don’t know how it’s going to go but I think it’s just a nice challenge. We’ve had limited running of the car and we’ll have a very short practice here, so that will be tricky. It’ll be quite a challenge but it’s also exciting.
“We’ll see where we stack up. There are very fast guys here that have been doing this for years, so it will be very hard. But we’ll see what we can do.’’
Asked why he is making this stock car start on another continent after such an illustrious open-wheel career, Räikkönen smiled a little at the implication it could somehow tarnish his great career if he didn’t do well.
“I don’t see any risk. … why not [try something new],’’ Räikkönen said. “What do I have to lose? If I do bad in a NASCAR race or bad in any race, I don’t care because I do it for myself. A good or bad 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. I think it’s great what Justin (Marks) and the team is doing giving a chance for all of us from Europe. … NASCAR is more known there, but I’m sure there are a lot of driers that would like to have a chance to try it. It’s not very easy, so maybe it will open some doors in the future for more chances to try and get more Europeans into the sport.’’
While Räikkönen was careful not to create any unrealistic expectations, his team owner Justin Marks was optimistic.
“For expectations, the speed is going to be there, the preparation is going to be there, the fitness is going to be there, all of that,’’ Marks said. “I think where the heavy lift is, is just understanding procedurally how the race goes, making sure there’s no drama in the pits, on the restarts and things like that.
“I think anything is possible. I really do believe anything is possible.’’
Marks also revealed this will be the only start for the team’s Project91 third car in 2022 but he plans on at least six races for the car in 2023 – primarily on road courses and possibly in the DAYTONA 500 and other “tent-pole” races like it.
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