Raikkonen following path to obscurity paved by Montoya

Kimi Raikkonen’s NASCAR debut in Friday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race draws both comparisons and contrasts to former Formula One teammate Juan Pablo Montoya’s NASCAR entrée.

Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula One champion, makes his NASCAR debut for Kyle Busch Motorsports at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Friday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race (live on SPEED at 8 p.m. ET; NCWTS Setup with Krista Voda at 7:30 p.m. ET).

Flash back to 2006, when Chip Ganassi tapped Montoya, with whom he had won the 1999 CART championship, to compete in four NASCAR Nationwide Series races and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale at Homestead. Montoya’s interest in NASCAR seemed to appear out of nowhere, much as Raikkonen’s did with Kyle Busch.

When Montoya first dipped his toes into the NASCAR pool, many said if any open wheel driver could succeed in a stock car, he was the likeliest. While success wasn’t overnight for Montoya, he won at Sonoma in his rookie year in 2007, and went on to score three top-five and six top-10 finishes. Now, as Montoya watches Raikkonen begin to carve his own path to NASCAR, he offers one singular piece of advice to the Finn.

“Keep working at it and listen to the advice people give you," advised Montoya, driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. “Ask questions and spend as much time behind the wheel, getting seat time, as you can."

Montoya and Raikkonen competed against each other in F1 from 2001 to 2006 and were teammates at McLaren in 2005 and part of 2006. Although both eventually turned to NASCAR, the avenues that led them to Formula One varied.

“Both Montoya and Raikkonen came into F1 in 2001, but under very different circumstances," said Bob Varsha, longtime voice of F1 on SPEED “Montoya had a distinguished record in the lower ‘development series,’ including winning the Formula 3000 championship, the equivalent to today’s GP2 series, the final step before F1. He was contracted to the Williams team, but they had no place for him, so they loaned him to Ganassi in CART, where he was an immediate sensation, winning the championship in his rookie season. Kimi, on the other hand, had virtually no record in the lower formulae; he was a karting star who had driven only 23 races in any kind of racing car when the Sauber team hired him. The team had to cut a deal with the FIA just to get Kimi a license. But he proved himself and McLaren grabbed him for 2002."
Raikkonen also has proven himself as a hard-charger, something Montoya can relate to but has learned doesn’t necessarily serve a driver well in NASCAR.

“He was nicknamed ‘Ice Man’ when he raced in F1 so if that tells you anything (laughing)," Montoya said. “He’s a great race car driver but he’ll need to learn to take care of his equipment in NASCAR. I know he likes to drive his cars hard and you can’t do that over here."

“Both (Montoya and Raikkonen) are recognized as being incredibly brave and fast, especially on cold tires," Varsha observed. “But the key with both men is that neither enjoyed a reputation as either a team player or a technically astute driver. They are from the school of ‘drive the wheels off it, and if it lasts, we win.’ If the car works as they need it to, they succeed. If it doesn’t, working with the engineers to make it better was never something that seemed to interest them."

Raikkonen’s reputation as reserved with the media also precedes him, much as Montoya’s as a hard-nosed, perhaps brash, driver did. But the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver thinks that, given time, his former teammate will fare just fine in the NASCAR world, where media and fan access to drivers is nearly unlimited.

“He’ll adjust after some time," Montoya surmised. “It’s a big transition all around and just one of those things he’ll need to get used to."

“Both (Montoya and Raikkonen) also suffer from lockjaw when it comes to the press, and neither is a fun interview …" Varsha stated. “I still find it odd (Raikkonen moving to NASCAR) because he is such a reserved guy and hated dealing with the press in F1. That supposedly was one of his motivations for leaving the sport after winning the ’07 World Championship. If Kimi knows anything about NASCAR, he knows NASCAR drivers are almost compelled to be gregarious, fan-friendly, work with the press and so on, which is completely unlike the Kimi those of us who have been involved with his career in F1 know."

However, at the end of the day, despite the media and fan spotlight and the looming differences between F1 and NASCAR, Montoya thinks Raikkonen will survive.

“My first choice wouldn’t have been Charlotte," Montoya said. “That’s a tough track in general. I would’ve picked Talladega or Daytona before Charlotte … I think that it’s cool that he’s coming over to NASCAR. He’s a cool guy and I think he will fit right in. It’ll be a tough transition but if he dedicates his time to these (trucks), he should be okay."

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