Kyle Larson attended last year's Formula One season finale anticipating a behind-the-scenes look at the so-called best drivers in the world. Little did he know he'd soon be racing against a world champion.
NASCAR has a record seven different countries represented on the entry list for Sunday's race at Watkins Glen International, and the headliner is 2007 F1 champion Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn ran two lower-level NASCAR races in 2011 during his one-year break from F1 but he never got a chance to enter the top Cup Series.
Now retired, Raikkonen will make his Cup debut on the Watkins Glen road course driving for TrackHouse Racing and its Project91 program designed to raise NASCAR's international exposure. The Cup Series has raced four times so far on road courses, and TrackHouse drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez have won on two of the circuits.
“Kimi being in a really good car should be able to adapt very well,” Larson said. "I'm looking forward to the opportunity to get to race against somebody like that who has strictly just basically road raced his whole life. I don't know if there's a Formula One Hall of Fame, but he'd probably be in someday.
“But I guess just to see how you stack up against like that. I know it's a totally different race car, but his experience level is way more than mine on road courses. So just to see how you stack up and look at his data and see the kinds of things that a guy like that with an open-wheel background does differently behind the wheel. I think studying that stuff can make you become a better race car driver in the future.”
The field also includes its usual bulk of American drivers, as well as Suarez, who is Mexican. But Watkins Glen is also welcoming German road-racer Mike Rockenfeller, who will make his NASCAR debut for Spire Motorsports.
Kyle Tilley will represent England for Live Fast Motorsports and has four previous Cup starts. Loris Hezemans of Holland has made three Cup starts and will drive for Reaume Brothers Racing, and Daniil Kvyat is back for his second start with Team Hezeberg after the Russian made his debut last month at Indianapolis.
“Everyone loves racing where I am from,” Kvyat said at Indy. “Everyone likes to drive fast. In Europe, it can grow. The more F1 drivers who come to NASCAR, the more worldwide interest will grow."
But there's some skittishness over all the new faces. NASCAR has just two races remaining in the regular season and a playoff berth up for grabs. There have been 15 different winners so far who have claimed all but one of the 16 slots in the playoff field; Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are in a tight fight for the final spot.
With so many newcomers on track Sunday and the inherent sloppiness of NASCAR drivers used to ovals trying to tackle a road course, those hoping to snatch that final playoff spot plan to be keenly aware of their surroundings. Although the newcomers Sunday are all experienced racers in their respective formulas, the Cup regulars don't know any of them or their tendencies.
“There’s just a little bit of hesitancy when you get around cars that you don’t know,” said Chris Buescher, who needs to win in the final two races to earn a playoff spot. “Part-time drivers in our sport, they usually come around enough that we know who they are and what they’re like. That makes it a little bit different when we head into a race like this, where we’ve got first-timers. But at the same time, it feels wrong to put rookie stripes on some of the names.”
Chase Elliott can clinch the regular-season championship on Sunday by scoring just four points.
The 2020 Cup champion is so far ahead of second-place Ryan Blaney that a finish higher than 30th will wrap up the title with one race remaining. He's got a 116-point advantage over Blaney, who is desperately trying to grab the final playoff spot.
Elliott has two career wins at Watkins Glen, in 2018 and 2019. He leads all active drivers with seven wins on road courses, which ranks him third on the overall list behind NASCAR Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon (nine) and Tony Stewart (eight).
ODDS AND ENDS
Chase Elliott is the FanDuel favorite to win Sunday. ... Tyler Reddick will try Sunday to tie Kyle Larson as the only drivers to win three times in a season on a road course. Larson won last year at Sonoma, Watkins Glen and The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Reddick has won so far at Road America and the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. ... With 15 winners through 24 races, this season could set a record with another unique winner. Since the playoffs began in 2004, there have never been 16 or more winners through the 26-race regular season. This season is tied with the 2011 season for most different winners in a regular season.
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