Later this year, Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen is going NASCAR racing again. The one-race deal for Watkins Glen is part of Trackhouse Racing's Project 91, a program announced earlier this year to get elite talent from outside of NASCAR a crack at stock car racing from a program that is currently producing race-winning cars. It might be the best idea in racing all year.
Not so long ago, there was a time when NASCAR was a natural target for drivers coming from other series and looking to race in America. The series landed Juan Pablo Montoya on his way out of F1, Dario Franchitti immediately after his first Indianapolis 500 win, and Marcos Ambrose at the peak of his Australian Supercars powers. But those days are long since gone. Raikkonen, who ran a race each in the junior NASCAR Truck Series and Xfinity Series during his brief detour from Formula 1, actually represented one of the last international crossover stars to take a shot at NASCAR racing.
With so much of that talent instead heading to America through or simply choosing to stay in IndyCar, the road from sports cars, open wheelers, and other silhouette racers to NASCAR has seemed closed for years. But Trackhouse, an aggressively-expanding two-car team that has now won two races this season with Ross Chastain, seems to see this as opportunity. Through Project 91, they've opened an easy and prestigious door for just about any headline-maker to take their shot at stock car racing.
And Kimi Raikkonen is the ideal pick to lead the charge. His strange and brief appearance in NASCAR, all over a two-week stretch in 2011, united the racing world in the odd appeal of seeing one of racing's most famous men racing a stock car sponsored by something called "perky jerky." Now, over a decade later, he returns as the first face of a program designed to capitalize on the potential of one-off appearances in a stock car. Now, in theory, he could blaze the trail for any driver outside the world of stock car racing interested in taking a shot at it.
The Next Gen car helps, too. Its sports car-like construction is more familiar to drive for a modern racer than the old tube-framed cars they'd race in lower-level feeder series. A Australian Supercars driver, like reigning series champion Shane van Gisbergen or or relatively new IndyCar ace Scott McLaughlin, might find the car downright familiar. That makes for easier adjustments and, by extent, a more welcoming one-off shot.
Now that Raikkonen has the program off to an exciting start, the only question is who else Trackhouse might try out. Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen seem unlikely, but is there another current F1 driver who might want to try their shot in a stock car? Does a current IndyCar star want to try the other side of American racing? If the No. 91 keeps coming to the track, Trackhouse will have plenty of chances to answer those questions. Racing, and by extent racing fans, will be all the better for it.
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