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NASCAR stars excited by Kimi Raikkonen’s Cup debut: ‘The best way to gain respect’

Chase Elliott is intrigued to watch Kimi Raikkonen this weekend, but the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion is as interested to hear the 2007 Formula One champ.

Raikkonen, a 21-time winner over a 20-year career in F1, will be trying to burnish his resume by wrestling a stock car around a road course in NASCAR’s premier series for the first time.

Elliott is hoping for another sort of positive reputational impact.

“NASCAR has a certain perception about it to the majority of the world, so anytime you have someone come immerse themselves in what it takes in the day-to-day aspect of it, the competition aspect of it, (it’s) the best way to gain appreciation,” Elliott said. “Coming to a race is a good way to do it, but to actually immerse someone who is a race car driver that can appreciate and understand the challenges of it. This is the best way for us to gain respect and appreciation. To invite and have guys from these other series across the world that have worldwide recognition and amongst our motorsport peers that overlook us.

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“That’s the only way to grow is to try to get more eyes on the sport. When you have someone who is a world champion like Kimi come over, I’m really curious to see what he has to say. He might come over thinking it’s the biggest joke ever. Or he might come over here and do really good. Or he might come over and struggle. All those outcomes could potentially sway his opinion. But as a driver and fan of what we have going on here, I think it’s really cool that he’s coming.”

Raikkonen will be among the record-breaking contingent of foreign-born drivers in a Cup Series race.

An unprecedented seven countries (Mexico, Finland, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany, Russia and the United States) will be represented among the 39 entries Sunday at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET, USA).

The field will include two drivers who were on the F1 grid together in 2020 (Raikkonen and Daniil Kvyat) and a 24 Hours of Le Mans champion in Mike Rockenfeller (who will race for Spire Motorsports).

But the focus mainly will be on Raikkonen in the debut of Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 Chevrolet. Trackhouse co-owner Justin Marks intends Project 91 to be a draw for elite drivers from around the world to NASCAR’s marquee events (four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves has expressed interest in attempting the Daytona 500 with the Trackhouse entry).

Trackhouse’s Daniel Suarez attended Raikkonen’s test at Virginia International Raceway and was impressed by his acclimation to the Next Gen and his inquisitiveness.

“I have been trying to learn as much as I can from him because he is an amazing race car driver,” Suarez said. “But I believe a race car driver is great not just because of driving. I think it is just everything else around him – how he thinks and how open- or close-minded he or she is. And in this case he is having a great time, and he is not just here to have fun, but he is here to be a competitor and wants to do well.

“He asked a lot of questions, and he was very open-minded. A lot of people know him as being very quiet and a leave me alone kind of guy, but he is not like that at all. So, he has been learning very quickly, and he knows how to drive and he is very natural at that. … I think he is going to be fast. The speed is there, and the racing part is going to be a process.”

Raikkonen has NASCAR experience, having made May 2011 starts in Xfinity and trucks at Charlotte Motor Speedway with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

But Sunday’s race will feature more pit stops as well as at least two restarts on a Cup road course, where the action notably has been chaotic in four races this season (most recently at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which features a 90-degree Turn 1 that is similar to the Glen).

“I hope he’s at least watched a couple of these races at road courses and seen what the end turns into,” Kyle Busch said.

On the latest NASCAR on NBC Podcast, analyst Steve Letarte said a top-20 finish would be a success for Raikkonen, whose presence won’t be viewed with the same game-changing effect that road-course experts such as Ron Fellows and Boris Said had 15 to 20 years ago (when both regularly ran and finished in the top five of Cup races).

“It’s a great opportunity for (Raikkonen) and Trackhouse,” Denny Hamlin said. “But as far as being a contender to race for the win, I don’t think that’s a possibility. It’s just really difficult because everyone has gotten so much better (on road courses). So I think it’s a good thing for our sport to get some good publicity. But other than that, I’m not really sure that it changes the dynamic of the race too much.”

The 2.45-mile road course does have some historic advantages for an F1 veteran.

With its high-speed straights and elevation changes, Watkins Glen has the European-style feel of a natural terrain layout. The track played host to Formula One’s U.S. Grand Prix from 1961-80, crowing race winners such as Graham Hill, Jimmy Clark, Niki Lauda, James Hunt and Jackie Stewart.

Elliott believes Raikkonen’s adaptation will ramp up quickly, similar to when the Hendrick Motorsports driver made his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut in 2021 in racing a prototype Cadillac sports car.

“I felt like from the first day I got in the car to where I ended the race was light years apart,” Elliott said. “And I enjoyed that progression and feeling like I was getting better. I think Kimi will do much the same. The good news that he has on his side is the speed is so much slower than what he’s typically used to seeing things. Anytime you come into a different arena, and you’re able to slow things down from a visual perspective, I think you’re in a great position to have success.

“It’s way slow compared to what he’s typically used to seeing visually and entering corners and approaching some of these turns, so I think that is on his side in a big way. And I think because things will be a little slower for him, I think he’s going to have a good opportunity to learn because of that.

“I think it’s a much different discipline than what he’s used to doing, and it might take a try or two, but I do think he’s a good enough talent that he could figure it out over the course of time. I think it’s a great initiative to get worldwide, known drivers to come and be part of NASCAR and put them in a competitive car like that is a really big deal.”