Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: What Exactly Do Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen Bring to NASCAR Weekend?

This weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race, the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix, may seem a bit more like a Formula 1 crossover event.

Though the FIA and FOM are not involved in the weekend, you can be forgiven for not realizing that. Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button are both competing at the no-stage grand prix event at the Circuit of the Americas, with Haas F1 team principal Guenther Steiner even making a cameo in the FOX booth during the broadcast.

Neither has a great chance at victory (the best chance for a road-course ringer victory is probably Jordan Taylor), but the two former world champions’ presence is definitely notable.

Friday’s (March 24) 50-minute practice session didn’t seem to provide a lot of answers for the guest drivers, as they all only had lap numbers in the teens. Raikkonen is definitely on the backfoot after finishing 32nd on the board, but with both of his teammates in the top five, the No. 91 is going to have plenty of good notes to work off this weekend. Button was 28th, not far away from kind of teammate Chase Briscoe.

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Button is making his first-ever start in NASCAR. The 2009 champion, to me, could very well be very competitive in the future, perhaps even in the closing stages of the race itself on Sunday.

The Brit is known for having a very smooth driving style, being very easy on the brakes and tires compared to many of his peers. This style allows him to conserve his equipment while still getting enough out of it to post competitive lap times, with mistakes such as tire lockups very rare.

This style also helps him immensely when driving in the rain. His very first F1 win, in a slow Honda back in 2006, was in the rain, and his seven wins in a race with at least a portion run in wet conditions ranks third overall since 1994.

All of these are good qualities for a NASCAR driver to have. However, one big drawback is that Button may not be very aggressive when it comes to the end of a NASCAR race, where the cars are more liable to be thrown around the racetrack.

Raikkonen, meanwhile, is making his second start for Trackhouse Racing as part of the organization’s Project 91 program. At his first at Watkins Glen International last year, Raikkonen was on track to contend for a top-10 finish before being caught up in a restart crash midway through the race.

Raikkonen is very well known for the memes surrounding him. Eating ice cream during a red flag delay. Going directly to his yacht in Monaco after crashing out. Sleeping in his car during a stop in practice. Not getting the drink.

That said, once Raikkonen is in the car, there is no funny business. He drives with no fear, getting the very most out of his equipment and going right on the edge.

The race that best defines Raikkonen as a driver is the 2005 European Grand Prix, held at the Nurburgring. At the time, F1 had a rule that teams could not change tires in a race. Yes, this was a rule that was on the books for a year and it led to the infamous 2005 United States Grand Prix that took over a decade for America’s F1 fanbase to fully put in its rearview mirror.

Fernando Alonso and Raikkonen swapped the lead throughout the race through their pit cycles, but Raikkonen held the edge on merit. In the closing laps, Raikkonen’s right-front tire was on the very edge of failing, with the announcers themselves marveling at how Raikkonen was able to post competitive lap times with a tire that wouldn’t be fit for a passenger car.

Finally, entering the first turn of the final lap, the McLaren finally gave up on the Iceman.

It wasn’t even Raikkonen’s best race of the 2005 season — that would be the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix — but it’s still a moment fondly remembered to this day in F1. Along with his championship season, which was about as close a finish could be without being a tie.

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Looking Back: The 2007 F1 Season, Pt. 2

Outside of competition, it’ll be interesting to see how ratings look this weekend for the Cup race. Last weekend was a terrible number for Cup, with an almost unthinkable result in the 18-49 demo: F1 beat Cup in the first month of the Cup season, a period in which NASCAR gets its biggest ratings of the year.

And it wasn’t a close loss. NASCAR was behind 606,000 to F1’s 681,000. This should not happen. FOX’s broadcast slate for years has brought in more fans than any other race in America, with traditionally only the Indianapolis 500 being competitive. That’s still going to be the case for the overall number, but the overall number is not what advertisers look at. Their focus is on the demo by and large, and it’s a key in everything from top-team sponsor negotiations to NASCAR’s upcoming media rights deals.

There’s a sponsor that could have been a NASCAR team sponsor that instead decided to sponsor the F1 team that finished eighth in the standings last season. The Athletic reported that Joe Gibbs Racing was in negotiations with Red Bull sponsor Oracle to sponsor Kyle Busch last year, but that fell through and Busch skipped town to Richard Childress Racing.

What Raikkonen and Button will mean for the COTA rating is a question mark. Watkins Glen last year was a rain delayed race, so it wasn’t clear how much Raikkonen’s cameo meant for that. The rise in F1 has come after Button retired, but he’s still around the Sky Sports broadcast as a pundit.

Raikkonen was the oldest driver in the field after leaving Ferrari for the bottom-filler Alfa Romeo team, but he was able to pretty easily beat his teammate and stayed relevant thanks to the power of memes.

Above anything, it’s just nice to be in an era now where big international names can be in solid equipment. Button is basically in a fifth Stewart-Haas Racing car (maybe the one time as a Williams advisor he wants a Haas to do well) and Raikkonen is driving for a team that won multiple road-course races last season. It’s a boon for everybody, but especially NASCAR.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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