Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: 5 Other Open-Wheel Drivers Who Should Be Making Their 2023 NASCAR Debuts

A somewhat sleepy start to the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season perked up this week with a couple of fresh faces on the Circuit of Americas entry list. Former Formula 1 star Jenson Button will attempt to make his first career Cup start, driving the No. 15 for Rick Ware Racing while Kimi Raikkonen comes back for round two.

Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula 1 champion, will be driving a third car for Trackhouse Racing, the No. 91 specifically earmarked to give international drivers a shot at Cup. It’s also an important crossover moment at a time Formula 1 popularity continues to near record highs. In the last week alone, F1 posted its second-largest audience ever on cable while NASCAR ratings at Atlanta Motor Speedway declined 17 percent year-over-year, a sign some future F1-NASCAR crossover could benefit stock car racing back here in the U.S.

For now, NASCAR will look to seize the momentum from the buzz surrounding the Button-Raikkonen duo and Jordan Taylor, the three-time WeatherTech Sportscar Champion subbing for Chase Elliott in the No. 9 for Hendrick Motorsports.

Can this trio start a trend? Here’s five more international names that could give NASCAR a boost this season, armed with either the resources or availability to give stock car racing a try.

1. Helio Castroneves

The four-time Indy 500 winner got the itch to make the switch after moonlighting in SRX last year. A season-opening win there at Five Flags Speedway led to a promise by SRX CEO Don Hawk to get him a ride in February’s Daytona 500, but unfortunately, an opportunity for Castroneves with Trackhouse or Floyd Mayweather’s No. 50 team didn’t work out.

At 47, Castroneves has earned the right to race whenever and wherever he wants. With Dancing With The Stars on his resume, the Brazilian remains one of the most recognizable names in the NTT IndyCar Series, posting nearly 172,000 Twitter followers at last count.

Why hasn’t it happened yet?

“I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice,” Castroneves said in January when explaining how the NASCAR deal fell through. “And to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it.”

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course offers no such restrictions. So why not do it then? In a perfect world for Castroneves, by then he has a fifth Indy 500 win under his belt to break the all-time record.

2. Daniel Ricciardo

The 33-year-old from Melbourne, Australia lost his Formula 1 ride with McLaren last season and promptly signed with Red Bull in a promotional-slash-development driver role. That means one of open wheel’s most outgoing personalities, with eight career F1 wins to his credit, could be available for a NASCAR road course at a moment’s notice.

Back in February, Ricciardo said he’d be willing to test a stock car in the states although he wasn’t exactly drooling over the prospect of running ovals. No need. There’s plenty of options with a half-dozen road courses still left on the schedule. How’s the Chicago Street Course debut as an option?

Last I checked, another former Australian star, Marcos Ambrose, tested the waters after a successful Australian SuperCars career and wound up staying on this side of the Pacific racing NASCAR for a decade, becoming one of the sport’s unique personalities.

Plenty of goodwill still remains from the fans Down Under (and elsewhere) that would be willing to take a second chance at the sport with a fresh face.

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Entry List: 2023 EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix

3. Will Power

Ricciardo’s not the only Australian with star Power. The reigning IndyCar Series champion has posted 30 of his 39 career victories on road courses, including five at Indianapolis. He’s aligned with Roger Penske’s team already, making a potential NASCAR crossover easy.

The issue has been Penske’s willingness to run a fourth, part-time effort the same way Trackhouse is running PROJECT91. You would think someone would tap him on the shoulder and point out the crossover INDYCAR/NASCAR benefits the same way both series get boosted when someone attempts both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

A part-time team for Penske wouldn’t just open up opportunities for Power: his open-wheel squad includes two of the top young talents in Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden. Newgarden, the lone American on this list, has dipped his toe in lately, testing the waters with SRX last year and winning a heat at the Nashville Fairgrounds.

A Ford Penske part-time effort to counter Chevy’s Trackhouse only makes too much sense; the team has the money, the resources and the bandwidth to make it happen. So why don’t they take a look?

4. Sebastian Vettel

The 34-year-old German and one of the most decorated drivers in F1 history retired from full-time competition at the end of last season. The four-time champion (2010-13) wouldn’t be the first to turn his attention to stock car racing after the fact.

There’s just no real indication that he’ll do it. When speculation ran wild Vettel would replace an injured Lance Stroll at Aston Martin in the F1 season opener, it turns out he was camping with his family. Vettel has been an occasional visitor in the NASCAR garage throughout his career but has never shown a serious desire to make the switch.

That doesn’t mean the sport shouldn’t try. Vettel’s Instagram following alone is at 2.7 million; by comparison, NASCAR Cup Series Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott sits at 470,000. Vettel would be nothing less than a coup for the sport, the perfect fit for a PROJECT91 program aiming for part-timers moonlighting in Cup.

See also
F1 Midweek: Make It Make Sense

5. Kevin Magnussen

The 30-year-old Danish driver is in his seventh season sitting atop Gene Haas’ F1 program. Hanging tough through some lean years, Magnussen has stayed loyal despite the obvious gaps in technology and performance this organization has compared to the sport’s top tier.

Haas has no such gaps, of course, when it comes to the NASCAR program. Instead, there’s an ability to roll out a part-time effort at will along with at least one seat opening up for 2024 (Kevin Harvick) and possibly more. While Magnussen doesn’t have the F1 resume of, say, a Vettel or a Max Verstappen, his 1.1 million Instagram followers outpace even Harvick’s social media reach.

And where was one of Magnussen’s most successful races in 2022? Circuit of the Americas, gaining five positions during the race to wind up eighth. Did I mention F1 is in the midst of one of their off weeks?

There’s still an empty 40th spot on the grid heading into the Cup race this Sunday (March 26). Such a shame Magnussen or somebody else with a top-tier resume isn’t put in position to fill it.

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About the author

Tom Bowles
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The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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janice

it’s been said that to get a ride you have to bring sponsorship or money to the table. i’d love to see helio but i do think his age might be a problem. he seems to enjoy racing in srx he’s also fun to watch.

John

At the risk of being castigated, how about not turning NASCAR into an international series like Indy car?

dawg

The main reason that road course ringers haven’t set NASCAR on fire, is the general quality of the rides they’ve been offered.

This time it seems that at least a couple of top quality rides are available.

Although Jenson Button in the 15, seems a mismatch, but I’ll be following him to see what a world class driver can do with it. It already surprised at Daytona, but that was an entirely different situation.

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