RACING

NASCAR at Watkins Glen: Kimi Raikkonen makes Cup Series debut with TrackHouse Racing | NASCAR

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When Justin Marks announced his idea for Project 91, it turned a lot of heads. One of them was Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula 1 world champion. The 42-year-old finished second twice and finished 3rd in three other seasons. Raikkonen has won 21 races and stood on the podium 103 times during his F1 career. As his F1 career draws to a close, the timing for this opportunity couldn’t be better.

Driving for Scuderia Ferrari comes with immense pressure, which Raikkonen understood. He still delivered a title, and the team hasn’t won one since. This opportunity with Project 91 is far from under pressure, but The Iceman relishes the opportunity for an even playing field.

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“I think it’s a great opportunity for European riders,” Raikkonen said. “I think anytime there’s an equal chance of winning in a series, that’s good. I think that’s good, and what I heard when I talked to people about the news car is that it’s pretty much fair for everyone. It’s still a learning phase for all the teams with the new car.”

“So far it’s been good. This car is a new generation car. It’s a lot nicer, I guess more or less what I expected. When the tires get hot you slide a lot more. I haven’t done any races since the last F1 race so it was fun to be in the car The team did a great job, really nice people all around Hope we can get a pretty good race result.”

If the timing is perfect, so is the location. There may be a lot of recent changes in NASCAR, but the philosophy of the “road course ringer” still exists. It was Kimi’s plan from the start, and Watkins Glen is the perfect circuit for him to feel at home in the car. Formula 1 raced here for 20 consecutive years (1960-1980), then known as the United States Grand Prix. It was long before Raikkonen’s time, but the flowing track is so similar to many circuits where he spent most of his career.

Legendary F1 drivers have won on this circuit. Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda and James Hunt are just a few of the names that have gone on to winning ways here. While Kimi would love to add his name to that list, he knows Sunday’s race is very different.

“I wasn’t looking to race again, but Justin came to my home in Switzerland and convinced me how serious he was about putting together a top-notch program,” Raikkonen said. “It will be fun, but it’s something I will take very seriously. I know how competitive the series is and it will be a big challenge.”

Marks made the trip to Switzerland to meet Raikkonen as he was his first choice. “Kimi is the pilot that I first thought of when we created Project 91. If we were going to get this thing going, obviously we needed someone globally relevant to fire it up,” said the team owner.

“I anticipate that after today when everyone sees this program in the flesh, Kimi has a good race and it looks cool and all that kind of stuff, that the conversations (with other drivers) They’ll start to escalate. They pay attention to it. They think it’s really, really cool, and they have an interest if their schedules and contracts allow them to be a part of it.

In preparation for this race, Raikkonen tested at Virginia International Raceway last week. He spent time in the simulator with Daniel Suarez and devoted most of his focus and energy to this endeavor. Marks sees this as the perfect start for his Project 91 initiative, to open a door for international race car drivers to come to the Cup. His team worked hard this weekend, led by Darian Grubb, who won the 2011 title as crew chief for Tony Stewart.

“We came up with a prep protocol for Kimi that was pretty comprehensive,” Marks said. “You just have to understand the rules and procedures and how the race is going to go. How to get the most out of the tires and how we get through the race without penalties, understanding pit stop procedures, yellow procedures, waves, all that kind of stuff.”

“I honestly think the easiest and easiest part of it all will probably be his rate of adaptation, his aggressiveness and his speed in the race car because his level of preparation has been impressive for everyone here. He was very, very focused. It was quite impressive, actually.”

“The challenge will be making sure he understands racing from a procedural perspective,” Marks said. “I think speed, race gear and adapting to the track and the car won’t be an issue at all. I’m optimistic and think he’ll pull ass.”

Daniel Suarez has also been spending time with Raikkonen, preparing for this weekend. “I tried to learn as much as I could from him because he’s an amazing racing driver. I think a racing driver is great, not just because of the driving, I think it’s just everything around him. How he thinks and how open or closed minded he is. He’s not just there to have fun, he’s there to be a competitor and he wants to do well.

Suarez believes Kimi will be able to find his way onto the pitch. “I think he’s going to be fast. The speed is there, but he doesn’t know all these riders. He doesn’t know how they race, he doesn’t know how aggressive they are, so that part is going to take a bit You can bring the best driver in the world and it’s still going to take time in the racing part.”

Raikkonen is looking forward to hitting the Glen with practice and qualifying tomorrow. “I think it’s great what Justin is doing. I think he came in as a very honest and straightforward guy and no one promised much. The only thing we can do is try our best and to hope for a good result. You never know, you never know what will happen.

Raikkonen is not the only champion to make his first Cup start this weekend. Mike Rockenfeller makes his Spire Motorsports debut in the #77 Chevrolet. The driver known as “Rocky” is a two-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner, DTM champion and has extensive experience here at the Glen. The veteran sports car driver finished 3rd in the 2006 Six Hours at the Glen race, and also recently drove here in IMSA with Jimmie Johnson and Kamui Kobayashi.

Kimi won’t be the only former F1 driver to take part in Sunday’s race either. Daniil Kvyat, who finished 36th for Team Hezeberg last month in Indianapolis, is back for more. The two drivers have competed in F1 for six consecutive seasons and will face off again this weekend in upstate New York. The Hezeberg team raced Jacques Villeneuve in the season-opening Daytona 500, where he finished 22nd after starting in 40th. Villeneuve won 11 races and achieved 23 podiums during his decade in Formula 1.

Raikkonen holds the record for the most starts in Formula 1. On Sunday, he makes his first Cup start with a team that has exceeded expectations all year.

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