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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Latest Worst Kept Secret: Raikkonen on the Fast Track for a Red Bull Racing Cup Ride

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.