It generally takes a great deal of hard work and sacrifice to make head-ways into NASCAR. Some drivers spend a few years in various lower divisions (i.e. ARCA, USAR Pro Cup, UARA, etc.) before giving NASCAR a shot. While a good number of drivers get a one-off deal or even a full season in the Truck or Nationwide Series, chances are 95 percent of these drivers will not make it beyond the lower levels of NASCAR. The trend a few years back was to hire USAC drivers and now, following the success of Juan Pablo Montoya, NASCAR owners have gone in the direction of hiring open wheel drivers from either the Izod IndyCar Series or Formula One. The latest to come from this trend is Kimi Raikkonen and following a mid-pack Camping World Truck Series finish, he’s all of a sudden promoted to the Nationwide Series and has even tested a Cup car (and crashed it). Which begs the question, is Raikkonen getting in over his head?
Make no mistake, Kimi Raikkonen is an immensely talented driver in Formula One, with a World Drivers’ Championship in 2007 to his credit, and has competed in the World Rally Championship the past few years in cars somewhat like what NASCAR has. Bu,t even the most lay observer of NASCAR has to be spinning their head like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” at how Raikkonen has already merited a Cup test and a Nationwide Series start based on one Truck Series start where, truth be told, despite running well and avoiding damage from the countless cautions, he still only finished 15th at the end of the night. And somehow, this justifies Raikkonen getting a Nationwide Series ride? It’s akin to telling a high school football star “You’re going to the NFL now. Have fun!” basically on a sink-or-swim principle.
Raikkonen might have a vast amount of credentials from Formula One, but most of the open wheel competitors have not found NASCAR to be as easy as they had first anticipated. Drivers such as Paul Tracy, Dario Franchitti, AJ Foyt IV, Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier, Sam Hornish, Jr., and Scott Speed among others found themselves either out of the sport within a handful of races or, in the cases of Villeneuve, Carpentier, Speed, and Hornish Jr., having their time in NASCAR be very, very limited. Even Juan Pablo Montoya has had only limited success as going into his fifth full-time season, he has still yet to capture his first NASCAR oval victory. The only driver with open-wheel experience in recent years to have truly succeeded in NASCAR is Tony Stewart, but his success is more a testament to the immense amount of talent Stewart truly possesses.
While it’s much too soon to dictate whether Raikkonen will thrive where so many others have failed, trying to accelerate his learning curve much faster than necessary is likely only going to cause his NASCAR career to flame out faster than a Pauly Shore comeback. Even Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart were smart enough to run full-time in the Nationwide Series before even entertaining the thoughts of moving to the highest level of NASCAR competition. And yes, even Danica Patrick, for as much criticism as she has received in NASCAR, deserves credit for the fact that she has been content to gain experience in the Nationwide Series before even thinking about a move to the Sprint Cup Series. For Raikkonen to only have one Truck Series start and move up to a higher level of competition so soon is a recipe for disaster. His Cup test for Robby Gordon at Virginia International Raceway seemed to confirm that as he did his best Carl Edwards All-Star Race impression by only taking six laps to rip the nose off of his car.
One can only hope that Raikkonen uses his Virginia misadventure as a learning experience and shrewdly realizes that he needs more time in a lower series to further acclimate himself to NASCAR’s COT before it’s too late. But, in today’s NASCAR, money speaks louder than anything and if the price is right, “The Iceman” will inevitably make it to Sprint Cup. But the big question is will his career melt down to nothing under the pressure or will he remain calm, cool, and collective in the world of NASCAR?
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