Kimi Raikkonen finished 27th on his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut at Charlotte following a pit road penalty and damage to the front of his car, having run most of the distance on the lead lap before that.
The Finn, driving the No. 87 NEMCO Motorsports Toyota prepared by Kyle Busch Motorsports, enjoyed solid long runs in practice on Thursday and set some competitive lap times, feeling much more at ease ahead of the race than a week ago when he made his NASCAR debut in the Camping World Truck Series.
Having qualified 22nd despite brushing the wall on his first flying lap, Raikkonen made early progress even while not being happy with his car's balance. He was able to pick up a few spots on every restart, making a clear improvement from his first NASCAR experience last week, and eventually managed to race his way up to 15th in the order despite not getting the right feel from the front end of his car, struggling to turn it into the corners as he wished.
Following a green-flag pit stop for tires and fuel on lap 139 of 200, Raikkonen was too fast leaving his stall and had to serve a drive-through penalty which left him two laps down on the leaders. Then he ran into a piece of debris from another car on the backstretch, which caused damage to the front of his Toyota, further affecting its lack of front grip.
An additional stop to remove the debris stuck under the nose of the car placed Raikkonen another lap down and from then onward he tried to make the most of his seat time, eventually crossing the finish line 27th, four laps down to race winner Matt Kenseth.
"It was nice in the beginning and I could overtake on the restart and it felt really good when [the car] turned," said Raikkonen. "Then it really it turned out to be really bad, the handling. Just because I couldn't even get the car in, even I felt I had to stop in the corner and it was just 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 it came back for me. Something's not right. It's a shame because in some points it felt quite good."
He added: "When it was really bad I hit the wall a few times, more or less everywhere. I got pushed, almost spun around. Once it got difficult it's really [hard] because you cannot race, you just try to survive through the corner, so it's not so much fun. But until that point it was good. The car was nice after the restarts and I could really go high or low and I could go fast. If the car would have stayed like that I think we could have finished very high but it's [a case of] learning."
Raikkonen also faced heat isolation issues early in the race, complaining especially of his feet getting very hot. Most NASCAR drivers wear heat-isolating heal protectors over their racing shoes, but he said he did not wear them because he did not have any issues last week in the truck race.
"It just burned them, the floor got really hot and then the feet got really hot, I don't know why the car was somehow really hot inside," said Raikkonen. "It was hurting on the heels but I couldn't really do anything so I just tried to get my feet off the floor and just hold them up."
Rick Ren, crew chief for Raikkonen in both of his NASCAR outings thus far, was pleased with how they ran and felt a top-15 finish looked attainable before the speeding penalty placed them two laps down.
"My goals for both races were to finish on the lead lap," said Ren. "That's a realistic goal and then take what you can get and we were shooting for that today. I think he did a really good job.
He added: "I liked when we unloaded for practice [on] Thursday he was aggressive and attacked the race track while he was very apprehensive the first truck practice here. I feel like he adapted a lot better, whether it's the car or the truck or because he had run [at Charlotte] the week before. But during practice he passed some cars low and high and I felt really good when we were on Thursday night that he was prepared to come and do this."
Raikkonen will return to Europe to compete in the Rally Acropolis in Greece next month and said he does not know if he will be traveling back to the U.S. for a possible NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut next month.
Ren said if Kyle Busch Motorsports was to run Raikkonen at the road-course event at Sonoma on June 26, it would need to do so through an established Cup team, although the timing would be tight and the options very limited.
"We would have to do that with a Cup team and the Cup teams that could go do that are very, very limited," said Ren. "The front-running Cup teams, we cannot get a car from those teams. We only have Nationwide cars. I have something that could maybe develop if he wanted to do that, but boy, it's cutting it close to go to Sonoma. It's just a few weeks away."
Cup drivers dominated Saturday's Nationwide Series event, Kenseth beating Roush Fenway teammate Carl Edwards, and Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch.