The international stars Trackhouse should target for its NASCAR project
The Project 91 initiative announced on Tuesday by NASCAR Cup squad Trackhouse Racing aims to attract top international stars to stock cars. Autosport picks some drivers it should target.
The Trackhouse team run by Justin Marks and co-owned by rapper Pitbull already fields two Cup Series entries for Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez, but plans to enter its #91 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 at least once during the remainder of this Cup season. It intends to expand the programme in the future.
“Project 91’s mission is to activate the intersection point of NASCAR racing and global motorsport culture,” said Marks.
“I truly believe the Next Gen car represents an opportunity for NASCAR to enter the global professional motorsport conversation.
“We now have a race vehicle with international technological relevance where world-class drivers from other disciplines can compete at NASCAR’s highest level without the steep learning curve that the previous generation cars required.”
But who should the team pick to drive it? Autosport's writers have picked out their candidates.
Patricio O'Ward - Jim Utter
Patricio O'Ward, Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Once again Trackhouse Racing is showing how it’s a 'disrupter' in the NASCAR Cup Series by creating a part-time third entry to provide international motorsport stars the chance to compete in NASCAR’s premier series. Talk about an attention-getter. Crossover stories – whether in sports in general or just within motorsports disciplines – always create a buzz and usually cater to a much larger swathe of fans. That’s sure to happen here.
As for Trackhouse’s first driver to place in its Project 91 entry this year, I think it may be a bit of an obvious choice – IndyCar race-winner Pato O’Ward. The Mexican is close friends with current Trackhouse Cup driver Daniel Suarez. The two have raced together already – notably both were members of the Race of Champions entry from Mexico in 2019. In addition, O’Ward already runs with Chevrolet power in the IndyCar Series for Arrow McLaren SP, which should prevent any manufacturer conflicts.
Aside from O’Ward, and dipping into the big ‘What if?’ category, why not offer Formula 1 standout Lewis Hamilton his first opportunity to race in NASCAR? In the past, the seven-time world champion has mentioned a desire to one day run the Daytona 500, but a chance to compete on the road course at Watkins Glen may be very tempting. It certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.
Scott McLaughlin - Nick DeGroot
Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske Chevrolet
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
The move by Trackhouse Racing to open up a third entry to international racing stars is a brilliant one, and has me excited to see who they can grab. Motorsport crossovers never fail to garner a lot of attention, from simple ride swaps to full-on career changes. Just look at the fanfare around Jimmie Johnson or Romain Grosjean on any given IndyCar race weekend.
If they really want to go big, Formula 1 is where Trackhouse should look. Daniel Ricciardo would be a good choice, as a long-time follower of NASCAR and someone who has made several tributes to the late great Dale Earnhardt. But with the ever-growing F1 schedule, there aren't many opportunities to spend a weekend away at a NASCAR track. The best place for Ricciardo to run would be at a road course and the Cup Series just so happens to visit Watkins Glen during the F1 summer break in August.
Although an F1 star would draw the most publicity, IndyCar is much more realistic and closer to the NASCAR world. My pick? Three-time Australian Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin, another driver who has expressed interest in running stock cars in the past. He even did a demo run in a Team Penske Cup car at the Surfers Paradise Supercars round a few years back.
The Kiwi came Stateside for a new challenge, and has already found success in IndyCar with his victory at St. Petersburg earlier this year. There are plenty of off-weekends on the IndyCar schedule, so why not give NASCAR a try?
Nick Tandy - Kevin Turner
#64 Corvette Racing Chevrolet C8.R LMGTE Pro - Nick Tandy
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
If you’re starting a new NASCAR team and want to look at options outside the usual pool of drivers, what might you be looking for? Some oval experience, proven ability at a high level and knowledge of the American motorsport scene would all be handy. Obviously, they’d need to want to do it, too. So how about Nick Tandy?
The 2015 Le Mans winner started off in the tough battles of short oval racing against the sort of hard characters that feature in NASCAR and can look after himself on-track. He has been quick in whatever he’s driven, from Formula Ford to LMP1, and even stunned on a one-off British Touring Car Championship test with the Motorbase Ford team. And he already has a desire to race a NASCAR at some point.
Tandy is a known figure in American motorsport, having been a GT class winner in Porsche and Chevrolet machinery, most notably the 2014 Daytona 24 Hours, 2015 Petit Le Mans (which was also a win overall) and 2019 Sebring 12 Hours.
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The JTR team boss has worked both on his own cars and with top-level professional engineers, a crucial element for success in oval racing. The current World Endurance Corvette competitor misses the American scene and would fit right in. Tandy in NASCAR makes more sense than you first thought!
Shane van Gisbergen - Andrew van Leeuwen
Shane van Gisbergen, Triple Eight Race Engineering
Photo by: Mark Horsburgh, Edge Photographics
The very obvious choice from the pool of Supercars stars is Shane van Gisbergen. The Kiwi just has to be one of the first draft picks for the project. He is one of the most naturally-gifted drivers on the planet and not only is he near unstoppable in Supercars, but his talent consistently transfers to anything else he drives.
He’s been a factory McLaren driver and won the GT World Challenge Europe title in 2016. He won the New Zealand Grand Prix - in a Toyota Racing Series single-seater - after starting from pitlane. Just recently, he decided to try his hand at rallying and finished second in his first ever round in the Australian Rally Championship. He’s already locked in a drive for New Zealand’s round of the World Rally Championship later this year. He also tested a NASCAR-inspired Trans Am car recently and was due to race it at Bathurst in April, only to be sidelined several days before when he tested positive to COVID-19.
Van Gisbergen is also an uncompromising, aggressive racer who never gives an inch. He would thrive in the dog eat dog, panel-bashing world of NASCAR. He’d be a perfect fit – except perhaps literally, given his lanky six-foot-plus frame. But if he crammed himself into a TRS open-wheeler, then I’m sure he’ll find a way to slide through the window of a Cup racer.
Put him on a road course and he’d be a winner. An oval might be tougher, but there’s little doubt ‘Giz’ could handle himself on NASCAR Cup Series stage just fine. It’s also worth noting the similarities between a Next Generation NASCAR and a Gen2 Supercar. Ford literally just used a modified Supercar to give some of its NASCAR drivers some cheeky laps at Watkins Glen.
Van Gisbergen in a proper NASCAR? Boy would it be a lot of fun to watch.
Dan Ticktum - Jake Boxall-Legge
Dan Ticktum, NIO 333
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
It's very rare that European drivers get the opportunity to cross the Atlantic and go gallivanting around the United States' cast of ovals and road courses in NASCAR Cup machinery. It's not that there's a lack of interest, it's just hard to see which PR-friendly racers would click in an arguably more loose, confrontational category such as the US' flagship stock-car championship. Except one, of course.
Out of all the box-office drivers populating the international championships, I'd wager that Dan Ticktum would be the man to hold his own against the rough-and-ready style of racing in NASCAR, and he'd be a perfect pick for Trackhouse's #91 machine.
What probably counts against Ticktum is his relative inexperience on ovals, but that would prove a minimal hurdle for the NIO 333 Formula E drive to overcome - and the rubbin's racin' mentality of NASCAR would likely be an aspect that he'd willingly roll his sleeves up for and get stuck in.
It would be an experience he'd value and acquit himself well at; equally, he'd not be a pushover when dicing with some of the more experienced names in the championship. And if nothing else, it'd be great fun - especially in terms of verbal sparring...
Johan Kristoffersson - James Newbold
Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky, Johan Kristoffersson, Rosberg X Racing
Photo by: Alastair Staley / Motorsport Images
Clearly, Trackhouse should be aiming for a driver with proven all-rounder status. And for that reason, it should be on the case with getting four-time World RallyCross champion Johan Kristoffersson’s contact details.
The Swede has shown that he’s a quick learner by winning the inaugural Extreme E title in electric SUVs last year, and also has plenty of circuit racing titles to his name. Remember the glittering 2012 season when he won the Italian-based tin-top series Superstars, while also claiming the spoils in the Scandinavian Touring Car Championship (a feat he repeated in 2018) and his domestic Porsche Carrera Cup title (repeated in 2013 and 2015)? He was also a winner in the 2019 WTCR championship against the world’s elite touring car drivers, comfortably finishing as the top VW driver in fifth.
Car control naturally won’t be a problem for Kristoffersson, who won 11 of 12 rounds on his way to the 2018 WRX crown, and he wouldn’t find the rough-and-tumble of NASCAR a shock given the importance of earning track position in the short, sharp RX bouts.
His fellow Swede and renowned all-rounder Mathias Ekstrom didn’t disgrace himself at all when he made two outings for the Red Bull team in 2010 at Sonoma and Richmond. In the former, he so riled Brad Keselowski that the future Cup Series champion was compelled to retaliate and fired him out of a likely top-15 finish.
Why should Kristoffersson be any different?
Sebastien Loeb - Tom Howard
Winner Sebastien Loeb
Photo by: Race of Champions
If Trackhouse Racing wishes to cast its net outside of circuit racing and into the rallying arena, then there are several candidates that could be worth considering. Among them is the World Rally Championship’s greatest driver, Sebastien Loeb, who is no longer competing on a full-time basis in the discipline.
Nine-time world champion Loeb has already proved himself as a versatile driver and at 48-years-old, the Frenchman has proven he’s lost none of his speed, having won the Monte Carlo Rally and the Race of Champions already this year.
Le Maestro has also enjoyed success in circuit racing, finishing second outright at the 2006 Le Mans 24 Hours for Pescarolo. In 2014 and 2015 he proved his worth in a touring car, finishing third overall with Citroen in the World Touring Car Championship, winning six times across the two seasons. He was also a winner in GT3 machinery when he raced with Alvaro Parente in the FIA GT Series in 2013 with his own McLaren outfit.
Despite his age, Loeb's appetite for motorsport has not diminished one bit. He is competing in Extreme E and the FIA World Rally-Raid Championship this year, alongside partial campaigns in the WRC and the DTM. Why not NASCAR too?
Spoiled for choice in IndyCar - David Malsher-Lopez
Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet
Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images
Chip Ganassi Racing’s six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon and reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou have been invaluable to Jimmie Johnson as the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion embraced the conversion from stock cars to open-wheel cars. It would be great to watch JJ return the favour and get his team-mates up to speed in a stock car, be it on ovals or road courses. Dixon can excel in anything, as his exploits in sports prototypes and GTs have proven, and there’s no reason to doubt Palou can’t do the same.
Other IndyCar champions who have raced well in tin-tops are Will Power and Sebastien Bourdais, when they raced Supercars in 2011 at Surfers Paradise. Power would likely fare well at Sonoma, and both drivers are old enough to have raced plenty of cars with stick shifts.
And then there’s Colton Herta. Just look at what he did at the Race of Champions in Sweden back in February, finishing second in the Nations' Cup driving vehicles and on a snowy surfaces with which he was entirely unfamiliar. And very soon he’ll have driven a Formula 1 car, too, adding further allure.
Finally, a shout out for Felix Rosenqvist, who has won races in all but one series he’s ever tried – and there’s a great many of them. To see him wrestling a stock car would be very interesting. He might not be the crowd magnet that Justin Marks is looking for, but he definitely could be a winner.
Kamui Kobayashi - Jamie Klein
Kamui Kobayashi, KCMG
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Two years ago, Kamui Kobayashi told this writer that he wants to try racing in NASCAR. This could be his chance, assuming Toyota allows it, that is…
At 35 years of age, ex-Formula 1 driver Kobayashi remains keen on sampling as many different forms of motorsport as he can. While he’s best known these days for his Le Mans-winning exploits for Toyota in the World Endurance Championship (where he is now nominally team boss as well as driver), he’s kept his hand in single-seaters in Japan’s Super Formula series, and is now a semi-regular visitor to the States thanks to his programme running the longer rounds of the IMSA SportsCar Championship.
As part of his IMSA deal with the Action Express Racing Cadillac team, Kobayashi has been sharing a car with no lesser legend of NASCAR than Jimmie Johnson, something that will have no doubt deepened his fascination with stock car racing even further.
While the Japanese driver piloting anything other than a Toyota might appear to be a no-go, he has been allowed to drive a GM car in IMSA (although Toyota brand Lexus isn't in the prototype ranks and is therefore not a direct rival). And, thanks to his close personal relationship with the auto giant’s bosses, he was even allowed to skip a Super Formula race last year in favour of racing in the Sebring 12 Hours. Could he wangle another favour? We can only hope…
Aim high to broaden horizons - Charles Bradley
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, sprays the victory Champagne
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
I love a crossover project, so kudos to Trackhouse for its global driver initiative. My first thought was about Trackhouse’s current star Daniel Suarez, the only non-American in NASCAR’s Cup Series. His better half is Julia Piquet, whose sister Kelly is with Max Verstappen. I bet Verstappen would love to do it, but I doubt Red Bull would agree…
But why not aim high? Lewis Hamilton has tested a NASCAR Cup car for Tony Stewart – his ambitions outside of F1 have always been American-leaning, where his profile is higher than ever. Fernando Alonso has always loved a challenge, as long as the equipment gives him a fighting chance. Kimi Raikkonen has raced in NASCAR Trucks and Xfinity before, and he must be getting bored now?
Jacques Villeneuve did well in this year’s Daytona 500, and while Juan Pablo Montoya hated the grind of NASCAR, he loves racing these cars at their limit.
Although NASCAR is the most American of motorsports, Jim France is at its helm. A true student of the global sport, you only have to check an IMSA entry list to see plenty of international talent. All ships rise with the tide, and it’s about time NASCAR broadened its horizons too.
Ross Chastain, TrackHouse Racing, Advent Health Chevrolet Camaro and Daniel Suarez, TrackHouse Racing, Tootsies Orchid Lounge Chevrolet Camaro
Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images
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