WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Kimi Räikkönen’s NASCAR Cup Series debut ended with a thud.
Räikkönen, the 2007 Formula One World Champion, was the victim of a stack-up exiting the inner loop at Watkins Glen International. Restarting 22nd to begin the final stage of Sunday’s race, Räikkönen found himself behind the contact from Trackhouse Racing teammate Ross Chastain to Austin Dillon. Dillon spun, cars slowed and Räikkönen couldn’t avoid the No. 27 Ford of Loris Hezemans, sending the 21-time F1 winner into the outside tire barrier.
“I had a good line there but everybody seemed to come to the left, unfortunately,” Räikkonen told NBC Sports. “I had no time to react. … The first impact, somebody hit the tire or the wheel and the wheel spun and something’s wrong with the wrist, but that’s how it goes.”
The event was Räikkönen’s inaugural Cup experience but not his first time spent in a NASCAR national series race. His first starts came in the Truck Series and Xfinity Series, making one-off starts for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2011.
Now with Trackhouse’s PROJECT91, an endeavor meant specifically for the world’s elite drivers, Räikkönen was able to make his first foray into the United States’ premier motorsport league.
When asked by reporters what he enjoyed most, The Iceman had a simple response: “I think everything.”
“Everything is new and I got the full service with the rain and everything …,” he said.
Räikkönen, who started 27th, spent a significant portion of his race inside the top 20 and even inside the top 10, working to as high as the eighth position. That featured battles with established Cup stars like Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher and Chase Elliott, who clinched the Regular Season Championship in Sunday’s race.
A veteran racer himself, Räikkönen said he was able to learn plenty despite his shortened stint.
“Yeah, for sure, but it’s always hard to know especially now here like what states (of the pit) stop and you know the tire life on that,” he said. “I felt that we had very good speed and especially after the pit stops but maybe I was a bit too harsh on the tires on the one of the sets.”
Crew chief Darian Grubb beamed with pride through the frustration of a minimized race, noting how well the NASCAR newbie kept pace with seasoned stock-car aces.
“He was learning every lap,” Grubb told NASCAR.com. “You could see how he was racing those guys, how he was able to learn their styles, where they were fast, where they were slow. And he was able to maintain really well with them. So he’s obviously a very quick study.”
Elliott had a particularly spirited battle with Räikkönen down the backstretch that led to an Elliott pass in the carousel. The 2020 Cup champion was left with good impressions from the former F1 star.
“I thought he was doing great,” Elliott said. “He was right in the middle of a mess there and looked like he was right home. So I thought that was really cool.”
Grubb, who led Tony Stewart to a championship in 2011, was saddened to see the race end so early after the effort Räikkönen and the team put forth.
“It was amazing,” Grubb said of Räikkönen’s dedication. “He worked so hard trying to get ready for this. It’s really disappointing to end that way. The way the strategy scenario was working, I think he was gonna have a good chance to go race hard with guys. He had good tires and able to race his way up, he was able to make some passes and stuff already. And I think we had a good shot to be up in the top 10, which is what our goals were for the weekend.
“So disappointing end, but he did an amazing job all week preparing for it, coming in and ready to go.”