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Ingram: Fast Finn’s Next Move Is NASCAR

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 4 2011

Juan Pablo Montoya has found a comfortable new home in NASCAR. Will Kimi Raikkonen do the same? (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From RacinToday.com’s Monday Morning Crew Chief™:

Nothing stirs the pot like rumor, conjecture or bona fide big news. And big news for the Sprint Cup came in the form of the signing of Kimi Raikkonen by Kyle Busch Motorsports to run races in the Camping World Truck Series this season. On the rumor circuit, meanwhile, Danica Patrick is being touted in the NASCAR garages as a likely starter in a Sprint Cup race before the season is out.

First, the news.

Since the early days of the superspeedway era in NASCAR, well known drivers from foreign lands have tried their hand at stock cars and most have returned to their native countries without much to show for the effort. The recent exceptions have been Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya and Australia’s Marcos Ambrose. Finland’s Raikkonen could quite possibly prove to be another.

Raikkonen, who won the Formula One championship in 2007, was a member of the new wave of wunderkind who arrived in Formula One during the 2000 and 2001 seasons. The group included two other future world champions: Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button. All three started their first F1 race by the age of 21 or younger.

What makes Raikkonen unique among this trio was his decision to leave F1 two years after winning the championship at Ferrari. Essentially he opted out of F1 when his contract with Ferrari was not renewed at the end of the 2009 season despite being in the prime of his career.

When he left Ferrari to take up competition in the World Rally Championship after nine seasons in

Juan Pablo Montoya has made a smooth transition from Formula One to NASCAR. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

F1, Raikkonen had already accomplished a great deal by the age of 30. In addition to winning 16 races, he was the driver whom Ferrari had chosen to replace the great Michael Schumacher. He then confirmed that decision by cooly winning a close championship battle in his first season with the Scuderia.

An inscrutable Scandinavian, Raikkonen is different from some of his country’s outstanding race talents like former F1 champion Keke Rosberg or sports car champion J.J. Lehto. The latter two were outgoing and learned to move beyond the Finnish monotone when speaking in racing’s universal language of English. Raikkonen is more like fellow Finn and former F1 champion Mika Hakkinen in terms of his single-note speech pattern and general coolness.

Difficult to read in terms of motive or emotions, Raikkonen’s reason for choosing to take up racing in NASCAR remains unclear. Does a genuine desire for competition and new experiences behind the wheel motivate him to try some of the closest, fastest and most challenging racing in the world? Is he still biding his time while angling for a hard-to-find seat among the top F1 teams? Toyota is now rumored to be looking at the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. Is there an effort afoot by Toyota to sign up Raikkonen, one that includes the bonus of some NASCAR seat time?

So far, the rallying career hasn’t quite worked out for Raikkonen. While a decision to pursue rallying – the most popular form of motorsports in Finland – made sense, for Raikkonen to turn to NASCAR doesn’t seem to add up at first blush. He never seemed to establish any comraderie with his team at Ferrari and is about as far removed from being a good ol’ boy as, well, Danica Patrick. If he didn’t particularly like the glare of publicity in F1, why would the NASCAR lifestyle seem so attractive?

It was a different for Colombia’s Montoya, a former teammate of Raikkonen at McLaren. Montoya grew up racing in the U.S., where the Hispanic culture is well established, particularly in Miami, where Montoya resides. Montoya wanted to start a family and be able to spend time with his family while pursuing a well-paid top drawer racing career.

Montoya was jobbed out of a possible F1 championship by a late season rulebook interpretation by the FIA concerning Michelin’s tires in 2003. So perhaps Montoya and Raikkonen share the same

The word on the street and in the garages is that Danica Patrick will make her Sprint Cup debut this season. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

concerns about the sometimes vicious politics in F1. But the Colombian left F1 for a homecoming by rejoining Chip Ganassi, with whom he had a great deal of success in CART and at the Indy 500. In the case of Raikkonen, he’s dropping out of the blue into an entirely new universe.

Once in NASCAR, the driving part of the equation may turn out to be the easiest part of the deal for Raikkonen. He is that good and that talented. When it comes to car or truck control, he’s on the same extraordinary scale as Montoya.

It will be interesting to hear what Raikkonen has to say during his first NASCAR race weekend next month in Charlotte and whether he’s as outgoing with the media as Jacques Villeneuve, Canada’s former F1 champ who has pursued a NASCAR career, and Montoya. In any event, Raikkonen’s arrival in the prime of his career is a major story for stock car racing in general and NASCAR in particular.

As for the persistent rumor that Patrick will be starting in the Sprint Cup before the season is out, that idea certainly makes sense. At the end of this season, she’ll be deciding whether to take up the option year on her contract with Michael Andretti’s IndyCar team in 2012. A Sprint Cup start or two could provide some leverage.

Perhaps Patrick will decide to run for rookie of the year in 2012 in the Sprint Cup if the right team opening becomes available and also return to Indianapolis for the month of May with Andretti.

What is seemingly unfathomable and certainly unthinkable until recently: Kimi Raikkonen and Danica Patrick both competing for the NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie of the year in 2012.

Quote of the Week: “I am really excited to have the opportunity to start my venture into NASCAR with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Kyle is one of the best in NASCAR, and being able to draw on his knowledge will be a valuable asset as I make my transition to a new form of racing. He has put together an experienced team that builds fast race trucks. I look forward to being a part of a team that has proven to be a winner on and off the race track.”  – Kimi Raikkonen.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 4 2011
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Chris Fiegler says:

    Would that be very weird if Danica Patrick’s First Ever Sprint Cup Series was the 18th Brickyard 400 on July 31,2011? But I Don’t Think that will Happen.