As had been said since the announcement was made, the world was waiting to see how 2007 Formula 1 champion Kimi Räikkönen would do in his NASCAR debut in the Camping World Truck Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway Friday night. As many expected, Räikkönen did not disappoint, bringing home an impressive top-15 finish in the No. 15 Perky Jerky Toyota Tundra.
Among swarms of media and the occasional Finnish flag, Räikkönen patiently listened to teammate Kyle Busch, KBM general manager Rick Ren and other members of his team as they advised him on the ins and outs of handling a truck on the 1.5-mile quad-oval during practice and qualifying. Räikkönen was careful throughout both morning practice sessions and turned in respectable best lap times of 31.265 and 31.471 seconds. Once qualifying rolled around in the afternoon, Räikkönen was feeling a little more comfortable behind the wheel and qualified the No. 15 in the 31st position.
As the green flag neared, the media continued to swarm and a few more Finnish flags popped up in both the garage area and the stands. It was clear that the big story of the evening would continue to be how Räikkönen would adapt to the NASCAR environment. Räikkönen was admittedly cautious but it was evident he was confident that he had what it takes to make the switch...and do it successfully.
As the race got underway, Räikkönen quickly got a feel for the handling of his Toyota, describing it as "loose on the outside." By Lap 5, he had scraped the wall just a bit and a Lap 8 caution caused by the No. 30 of Todd Bodine would give the No. 15 Perky Jerky team a chance to check out the damage. However, Räikkönen was happy with the car saying it "felt good" so the team decided that he should stay out. The race restarted on Lap 11 and by Lap 17, he had moved up to the 26th position.
Another caution came out on Lap 19 and Räikkönen was reminded by spotter Mike Swaim to hold his line until crossing the start/finish line. The No. 15 again chose to stay out and by Lap 24, Räikkönen was in the seventh position.
Throughout the race, Räikkönen had questions regarding the different racing format and Swaim and Ren answered questions about things such as the "lucky dog", when to pit, positioning on restarts and pit strategy. Both were encouraging to Räikkönen throughout the entire race which only fueled his confidence as he continued to maintain strong track position.
Räikkönen remained quiet for the next 20 laps as he settled into the 12th position. By Lap 46, he noted that the truck was a "little bit tight." Fortunately, the pit window was coming so the crew could make the proper adjustments to the Perky Jerky Toyota. Right before Räikkönen was about to pit, teammate Kyle Busch caused another caution to come out on Lap 52. Räikkönen executed his first pit stop on Lap 53 expertly with the No. 15 crew changing four tires and adding fuel along with a windshield tear-off. No other adjustments were made to the truck and when the race restarted on Lap 58, the "Iceman" was in the 13th position.
After cautions on Laps 61, 68, and 75, it was evident that Räikkönen was frustrated that just as he was getting comfortable with the truck, a caution would interrupt his plan of attack. By the sixth caution on Lap 75, Ren was ready to bring in the truck for four tires and fuel. Because some of the other teams took only two tires or no tires at all, Räikkönen ended up in the 20th position when the race restarted on Lap 81. Ren instructed Räikkönen to try and save fuel by running in third or fourth gear. Ren assured him that they could make it to the end of the race on fuel even though it would be close.
By Lap 84 another caution had come out as the No. 02 continued to have problems on the track. Räikkönen remarked that his truck was a "fast truck if I get the chance to drive it." It was clear he was looking for a long green flag run in order to show everyone would he could really do behind the wheel of the No. 15 Perky Jerky Toyota.
The race restarted on Lap 88, with Räikkönen in the 14th position. He remained quiet again as he fought to maintain his position on track. The ninth caution of the night on Lap 96 did nothing to interrupt the quiet as Räikkönen continued to concentrate on moving through the field. By Lap 104, Räikkönen complained that the truck was "a little bit too tight" and he ended up hitting the wall "quite hard." Ren asked Swan to inspect the damage from the spotter's stand and Swaim reported back that all looked ok. Räikkönen again mentioned being frustrated about the excessive amount of cautions after the record-tying 10th caution came out on Lap 106 after David Starr's Toyota smacked the wall. The race restarted on Lap 111 with Räikkönen in the 14th position. He came on the radio to say that the truck was still "too tight" but remained quiet and focused as he completed the remaining laps of the NC Education Lottery 200, finishing an impressive 15th.
Kimi Räikkönen on his NASCAR debut:
"The racing was fun. Too many cautions. Every time that I would feel like the car would start to run better then you would have a caution and then it would take the track a long time before the handling comes back. You would rather be more high up, but how it felt this morning, now I was pretty pleased with how it felt in the race. For sure, there is still a lot to learn and improve, but I think when we have another race it will be better."
KBM General Manager Rick Ren on Räikkönen:
"I was really pleased with his (Kimi Raikkonen) performance during the race. It took about five laps for our truck to start coming in. He would lose quite a few positions in that first five laps. Then as soon as he got the tire temperature up - and I told him as soon as the tire temperature would come up that we would be better off and keep getting better. Actually, if we could have ran a really long green flag run at the end, our truck actually could get better the longer it went. It's one of those things where we just kind of did some guess work looking at the notes and anticipated on what the track would do at night. I actually felt like I had to treat him like he's a young guy who had never raced here before. A young guy can drive a tight race car, but can't drive a loose one. I tightened her up pretty good to start the race."
Kyle Busch Motorsports PR