The Frontstretch: The Latest Worst Kept Secret: Raikkonen on the Fast Track for a Red Bull Racing Cup Ride by Bryan Davis Keith -- Thursday May 26, 2011

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With Danica Patrick busy in Indianapolis with a certain other race being run this Sunday, the Nationwide Series stage is set for the latest open-wheel fad to take center stage. Kimi Raikkonen, a former Formula One champion and fresh off a top 15 finish in his Truck Series debut scarcely a week ago, will now make his NNS debut at the same Charlotte Motor Speedway, driving the No. 87 car in a joint effort between NEMCO Motorsports and Kyle Busch Motorsports. The driver they call “the Iceman” overseas may well be the most anticipated debut the Nationwide Series has seen since, well, Danica made her debut at Daytona last season.

Listening both to the driver and Truck owner Kyle Busch, this is just a testing the waters move for Raikkonen, who’s already left Formula One to pursue the wholly other motorsports realm of rally racing in his career, just another means of experimenting. But putting the pieces together, this weekend and this entire visit to Charlotte is far more than that…Kimi Raikkonen is being primed to replace Kasey Kahne at Red Bull Racing in 2012, joining a parade of big-name open wheelers that one by one over the past few seasons have come to stock car racing’s biggest stage to try their hands at oval racing.

Let’s examine the facts that support such a claim. Ever since joining the Sprint Cup Series alongside Toyota back in 2007, Red Bull Racing had, until this year, always had an open-wheeler on the roster. The team took a big-time leap in hiring AJ Allmendinger directly from open-wheel to the Cup ranks with hardly any time in a developmental stock car ride, proceeding to replace him less than two seasons later with another F1 transplant in Scott Speed. Short of hiring Kasey Kahne for a one-off deal, the only other constant in the team’s history other than Brian Vickers has been an open-wheeler in the other seat.

Two, Red Bull Racing is sticking with Toyota for the long haul. Despite multiple seasons of rumors that RBR, with MB2 Motorsports’ Jay Frye in upper management, a former Hendrick driver in Brian Vickers and a future one in Kasey Kahne driving the team’s cars, 2011 was the year to make the swap. And it didn’t happen.

That being said, the idea that Kyle Busch the owner would be making efforts to facilitate driver development for Toyota makes a whole lot of sense. It’s certainly not the first time Toyota has made the effort; Bill Davis Racing brought Jacques Villeneuve over back in 2007. And as for Kyle, he’s seen firsthand the costs of team ownership. Even winning an owner’s championship in his first season as a Truck owner hasn’t turned his team into a money-making entity…or gotten him to keep quiet about that financial reality either.

For Kyle to stay in this sport as long as he plans to not just as a driver, but as an owner, it’s going to take serious dollars. The type that Toyota has been pumping into their stock car racing ever since making their debut in the Truck ranks in 2004. The type that puts the manufacturer’s decals all over his No. 18 for a number of races in 2011.

KBM’s trucks are proven winners. Kyle’s the most talented driver in Toyota’s stables. And Kyle needs the manufacturer almost as much as they need him. For him to play both owner and driver coach to Raikkonen suggests something far more long term than a Memorial Day joyride.

And then of course, there’s the fact that KBM partnered with NEMCO Motorsports to bring Raikkonen to the Nationwide Series. Joe Gibbs Racing, even since joining forces with Toyota in 2008, has remained largely autonomous from the rest of Toyota’s fleet, running their own motor program while fielding cars far more competitive than any of the make’s teams in the NNS and Cup ranks. Consistent with that autonomy is the reluctance JGR has shown to fielding additional cars to their Nationwide entry lists; sources informed Frontstretch last season that despite bringing sponsor dollars and a solid resume in NNS and Truck racing, the addition of Brian Scott to the team’s roster was an extremely tough sell.

In short, getting JGR to roll out another car wasn’t going to happen. So why NEMCO? Why not RAB Racing, which is enjoying a renewal in 2011 with Kenny Wallace at the helm and has also featured Toyota factory sponsorship on its race cars this year? Why not Rusty Wallace Incorporated?

Two factors. One, everyone in this sport has a long memory. And anyone who can remember back to 2003 is well aware that Kyle Busch made his own Nationwide Series debut driving the No. 87…for NEMCO Motorsports. Two, the ties between NEMCO Motorsports and Red Bull are tighter than meets the eye. After spending years working together at the now-defunct MB2 Motorsports, Joe Nemechek and Red Bull GM Frye still have maintained ties; a number of NEMCO’s Cup cars are old Red Bull Racing machines. Plus, it was NEMCO’s No. 87 Cup car that Scott Speed took over twice in 2009 when he failed to qualify for Cup races at Darlington and Sonoma in his No. 82 Red Bull car.

This one’s got all the makings of the worst kept secret in NASCAR. Just like the “suspense” that surrounded whether or not Danica Patrick would actually make her Nationwide debut at Daytona instead of Fontana (like that one wasn’t planned months ahead of time, no matter what happened in the ARCA race), there’s too many coincidences, too many aha moments, for this to be a one-off deal. With Carl Edwards all but off the Cup market and a current driver market revolving around keeping what talent is signed signed, any blockbuster hire for Red Bull to make as Kasey Kahne’s replacement is likely coming from outside of stock cars. Just like Raikkonen.

Besides, as Kimi said it himself after his first truck practices last weekend, “if I suck, there’s no point in coming back.”

A top-15 debut makes it clear. Raikkonen doesn’t suck. Guess there’s a reason to keep coming back.

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brian
05/27/2011 09:42 AM
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It will never happen. The biggest problem with your theory is that you think Kimi would be willing to move to the USA and run the 36 plus races a year. Let me make this clear, Kimi would never and I repeat never do it. Kimi made over $200 million driveing F1 that only had 18 races a year. He left F1 because he didn’t want to commit the time to it anymore and didn’t feel like dealing with the media. Also, he had enough money and he wanted to do things that would be fun for him. He doesn’t want a full time job, the guy is on permanent vacation with a hot wife. He doesn’t even do the full Rally scheadule and they only race once every six weeks or so. Do you think Kimi would put in full time with NASCAR? NASCAR to Kimi is like going to a fantasy camp for a middle age guy. Back when Kimi was running F1, the first race of the year was in Australia. While all the driver’s were down under early to get use to the climate (It’s summer when it’s winter up here), Kimi was running in a snowmobile race under the alias James Hunt. He won the race jumped into a plane and made it just in time for practice for the Grand Prix (he won that race). All you have to do is look at the name that he used, James Hunt, to give you a clue about how this guy thinks. One other story, he once ran a speedboat race in a gorilla suit also under the name James Hunt. Kimi will do a handful of races, but thats about it. Don’t get too excited about a guy that likes his freedom.

AncientRacer
05/27/2011 11:22 AM
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Brian

I agree fully. I cannot see Kimi running full-time. I can see him as a “hobbyist.” The only, and this slight, variables that I think might entice him into a full-time gig for a season or two is if Jimmie wins another championship in a row and there is the prospect that Kimi could bring him down, or if Travis Pastrana gets in full time and Kimi wants to take him on. I could be way off my rocker in thinking that, but I am noted for being off my rocker. :)

midasmicah
05/27/2011 11:25 AM
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With the influx of open wheel and f-1 drivers drivers and the cup drivers domination of the “cup lite” series, a lot of young American drivers are being shut out. So much for the great “American” sport.

rick
05/27/2011 02:37 PM
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Great American Drivers?It use to be that great american drivers started in open wheel Like USAC and moved their way up to big time like Indy cars. That series is now an F1 wannabe dominated by foreign drivers. So much for Tony George reviving open wheel racing. There are still a ton of young American drivers in open wheel who find themselves with no place to go.Nascar takes a few of the cream but if these kids choose to stay in open wheel they are shut out from the big money. I am sure they will continue to race and have fun but the big dollars will elude them and so will the chance to win the Indy 500