NASCAR

Kimi, Whitt make Charlotte N'wide debuts

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Rea White

Rea White has been covering NASCAR full time since 1998. She has won awards from press agencies in Alabama and North Carolina and formerly served as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Follow her on Twitter.

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CONCORD, N.C.

A former Formula One world champion and a young driver who many expect to be winning for a long time in the NASCAR ranks shared common ground Saturday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Each made his Charlotte debut in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. And each experienced a little of the frustration that battling an ill-handling car can offer a driver.

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For Kimi Raikkonen, an F1 champ testing the NASCAR waters, and Cole Whitt, at 19 the youngest to ever lead the Camping World Truck Series standings, Saturday was a lengthy, hot day. It was also a learning experience and a race in which they both gained knowledge about handling the cars in this series.

Whitt is just trying to gain some ground and experience, to methodically work his way through the ranks. In his third career Nationwide Series race Saturday he ran in the top 10 at times before finishing 15th, a solid and respectable run in his debut.

Raikkonen’s exact plans are a subject of speculation, but he raced through setbacks — he brushed the wall, he ran over someone else’s front splitter that was laying on the track, he was penalized for speeding on exit to pit road — and finished 27th.

Raikkonen drove a Nemco Motorsports entry that was prepared by Kyle Busch Motorsports. After the race, KBM general manager Rick Ren also addressed Raikkonen’s outing. The driver made his NASCAR debut a week ago, driving a KBM entry in the Truck race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Saturday, he battled a series of problems, with the heat perhaps being the most distracting.

“The floor got really hot under the seat,” he said. “I don’t know why the car was so hot inside. It was hurting on the heels, but I couldn’t really do anything. Just tried to keep my foot off the floor and just hold them up.”

That, combined with the setbacks of the day, certainly hampered his enjoyment of the 300-mile race.

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Asked if he enjoyed racing in the series, Raikkonen pointed that out.

“In the beginning, yes, but the car was getting more and more difficult,” he said. “It was nice in the beginning, and I could overtake on the restart and the car felt really good. It really turned out to be a really bad day with the handling just because I couldn’t get the car to turn and had to almost stop in the corners because it was pushing all the time. The same thing happened in the first and second practice and then we could improve it in the second practice, but somehow something is not right.”

Ren said the team had the car set up in a way that would be easy for Raikkonen to adjust to in the opening segment of the race, then it had the setbacks.

“We had him coming around real good, we were up to 16th at one time — we were holding our own there in 17th-19th spot and we got a speeding penalty,” Ren said. “That kinda gets you in trouble. NASCAR does a great job, but how does an orange splitter (end up) laying in the racetrack and we hit it?”

Ren said he was impressed with how well Raikkonen ran over the course of the Charlotte races.

“I think Kimi did a great job,” he said. “Everybody needs to understand that Charlotte is a very difficult racetrack to race. There are very good, famous race car drivers that have never won at Charlotte — this is a very difficult racetrack.

“For him to come here and finish on the lead lap 15th in the truck, come here and qualify good in the Nationwide car, great in the second practice — he did a great job. He’s got really good car control, he’s got good feedback for having never been in these types of vehicles — enough feedback to help me realize what it’s doing. I call it a success.”

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Asked if the organization could be involved in fielding a future NASCAR Sprint Cup car for Raikkonen, Ren said it is up to the driver. Raikkonen did test a Robby Gordon Motorsports Cup car earlier this week at Virginia International Raceway.

“We would have to do that with a Cup team,” he said. “I’m just going to tell you right now, the Cup teams that can go do that are very, very limited. The front-running Cup teams, we cannot get a car from one of those teams.

Would he like to work with Raikkonen again?

“I think it’s really up to him to decide if he wants to come do this again,” Ren said. “Hopefully we did our part, and it was a pleasant experience for him. He thanked everybody for doing what we did. I don’t know, I feel good about it.”

Would Raikkonen like to return to NASCAR?

“My plan was always to do these first two races and then I have to go back to Europe and do some Rally (races) and then we will see what happens,” he said.

Whitt’s first run at the 1.5-mile track looked like a success as well, especially since he turned in the top-15 run.

After the race, Whitt talked with his crew in his pit box for a few minutes before walking back to the garage. Competitors walking past him wished him well on all future runs. He’s currently atop the Truck series standings, but has clearly appreciated the opportunity to drive the Pastrana-Waltrip Racing entry.

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While he admitted that the car didn’t handle as well as he had hoped, he didn’t find real differences in racing in the two series.

“It wasn’t a whole lot different than (racing) the trucks,” he said. “The race was real similar, the way they could run the line and the high line and stuff. We just never really had the car.”

Whitt said he didn’t struggle with the transition to the car, as he has been racing in the Camping World Truck Series full time this year. Despite the added length of a Nationwide race, and the heated conditions of Saturday’s race, he seemed content with how he handled the race.

“I’m fairly comfortable,” Whitt said of his race. “Obviously I don’t have 300 starts so it’s tougher for me just to get acclimated to all the changes and everything, but today really didn’t have anything to do with that. We just missed the setup.”

So what does his future hold? Whitt hopes more of the same.

“Hopefully more Nationwide starts,” he said. “I’d like to climb the ladder, but hopefully win that Truck championship.”

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