Kimi Raikkonen steers his car through Turn 1 during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Circuit of the Americas. (AP)
AUSTIN, Texas — Kimi Raikkonen has already sprayed champagne from the winner's podium at the Circuit of Americas.
That was in 2018, when he wore Ferrari red and scored the final victory of his long Formula One career at the United States Grand Prix.
The Finn is back in Texas, but in a much different car in a much different series with very different racing styles.
Raikkonen and fellow former F1 champion Jenson Button will drive Sunday in NASCAR's first road course race of 2023. Raikkonen won the F1 championship in 2007. England's Button won it two years later. They have 36 career F1 victories between them.
“It’s nice to be back,” Raikkonen said Saturday. “It’s a lovely place here in Texas.”
Raikkonen will driving Trackhouse Racing's Project91 entry that is designed to give a seat in NASCAR to drivers from others disciplines. Button will drive the No. 15 Mobil 1 Ford Mustang for Rick Ware Racing.
Kimi Raikkonen (AP)
Many of the regular NASCAR drivers welcome the Europeans.
Ryan Blaney said he wants to meet Button because he was a huge fan as a kid. Cup eries leader Joey Logano is impressed they are climbing into cars that must feel unusual.
“We don’t ever get the opportunity to stack up against those guys. They grow up racing completely different cars in different countries,” Logano said. “Put me in an F1 car and I’m going to be lost. It’s great for our sport."
And there's another “road course ringer” in the field: Sports car driver Jordan Taylor makes his NASCAR debut with Hendrick Motorsports. He qualified fourth driving for injured Chase Elliott, who is still recovering from fractured tibia in a snowboarding accident.
Jenson Button at COTA. (Getty Images)
“Jordan is really strong,” said William Byron, a two-time winner this season who qualified in pole position for Sunday. “It's impressive. The other guys too.”
Some drivers have questioned whether Taylor and the F1 guys really know what they are in for in the the rough-and-tumble racing in the Cup series.
Raikkonen has some experience with that. He made his Cup series debut last season at Watkins Glen, and was competitive until getting run off course on a restart. His race ended with a crash into a tire barrier.
“In F1, open wheels if you touch somebody you usually lose a part or lose a wheel, you can’t really take that risk ... In NASCAR, you can have a bit more closer racing,” Raikkonen said. “It makes it exciting I guess at the end of the races when people can be quite aggressive.”
Button said he’s ready for it: "I get to race against 30 other crazy guys out there. I’ll roll with the punches.”
Button noticed some big differences right away in Friday's practice. First, he forgot how to start the car.
“There were a few other switches I had to put up,” Button said, laughing at himself.
Then he had to avoid some heavy traffic.
“People don’t move out of the way when they’re on a slow lap, and you're on a quick lap,” he said.
Button's NASCAR debut is part of a three-race deal to drive road courses this season. And he's not done switching things up. He's already been named one of three drivers for NASCAR's entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. Taylor will be the backup driver and driver coach for Le Mans.
Button still spends part of the year following F1 as part of Sky Sports broadcast race coverage.
He said it was his wife, Brittny Ward, who nudged him into trying to find an entry into NASCAR. She's an American and knew more about NASCAR than F1 when they first met over dinner in Los Angeles years ago.
When Button told her he was an F1 driver, Button said she asked, “Is that like NASCAR?’”
“I’m like, ‘It’s just like NASCAR. It's so similar, you wouldn't be able to tell them apart,'" Button said.
Feels like home
Mexican driver Daniel Suarez said he's happy to be racing so close to his home country. He hasn't seen his mother and sister for several months and both made the six-hour driver from his hometown of Monterrey to see him.
“It feels like home,” Suarez said. “I have my family here. We have fast cars too. Everything is looking great.”
Suarez's victory on the road course at Sonoma, California, last season made him the first Mexican-born winner at NASCAR's top level.
NASCAR announced that April 5 will be the day Hendrick Motorsports can appeal the largest combined fine on one team in series history. The team was hammered with a total of $400,000 in fines, suspension for four crew chiefs, and loss of 100 regular-season points and 10 playoffs points for modifying air-deflecting pieces at Phoenix Raceway. HMS driver Alex Bowman was the Cup Series points leader prior to his 100-point deduction. He's now 20th.
Ross Chastain earned his first Cup series win at COTA last season and celebrated by smashing a watermelon off the top of his car.
On Friday, Chastain threw fruit from much, much higher: the observation deck of the racetrack's 251-foot tower. At that height, the fruit hit the pavement with a smack that sounded like a rifle shot and and practically disintegrated on impact.
He hit the target all four times.
“The key is to imagine someone's face right there," said Chastain, who sits third in the standings and qualified 12th for Sunday's race. “I'm just not going to say who I imagined.”
Odds and ends
Tyler Reddick is the betting favorite to win, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. He'll start second ... Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, owner and driver at Legacy Motor Club, will make Austin his second start in a 10-race part-time schedule. Johnson called the Circuit of the Americas a “bucket list” track for him and said he’s wanted to race here since it opened ... IndyCar driver Conor Daly will drive the No. 50 Chevrolet for The Money Team before returning to open-wheel racing with Ed Carpenter Racing at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2. He’s the first driver to try such a “Texas Two-Step" between the two series.
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