Written by Sean McKean, Edited by Janvi Unni
From 1997 to 2009, NASCAR underwent an invasion of open-wheel drivers from the IRL and Formula 1. Drivers had varying success during this time, with AJ Allmendinger and Juan Pablo Montoya winning cup races, while Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier barely cracked the top-15. This era of NASCAR appeared to have come to a close for good; however, has a second wave been hitting NASCAR as of late?
The Original Invasion
In 1997, future champion Tony Stewart set the precedent when he moved from the Indy Racing League to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series with Joe Gibbs Racing. Having won the 1996-97 title in IRL, the expectations were high, and he delivered. What followed was a Hall of Fame-worthy career, with Stewart amassing 49 cup series wins and three championships in NASCAR.
The next follower wouldn’t be seen until 2007 when Juan Pablo Montoya announced he would be signing for Chip Ganassi Racing in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. For Montoya, expectations were high, seeing as Stewart had great levels of success up to that point. Though his results may not have been HOF-worthy like Stewart, Montoya would take two wins in the cup series and make himself known as a contender every weekend.
It’s said that the floodgates for the invasion opened when Montoya took his first victory in 2007. What followed was drivers from IndyCar and Formula 1 alike trying to take their shot at stock car racing’s biggest stage.
1997 F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve would be the first of these in 2007, making select starts in NASCAR’s top three divisions. From 2007 to 2013, he would not achieve much, getting one pole in 2010 and a few top-fives. Though the Canadian was a consistent contender at road courses, Villeneuve would never make it to victory lane in any of NASCAR’s primary divisions.
Villeneuve wouldn’t even have the worst results of the invaders, as Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier would not achieve anything. For Franchitti, a top-five in a Nationwide Series race at Watkins Glen would be all he’d achieve. Otherwise, he had a Nationwide and Cup Series campaign littered with DNFs and poor finishes, even failing to qualify for the 2008 Texas Spring and Sonoma Cup races.
It was a similar story as well for CART race winner Patrick Carpentier, who achieved a best finish of P14 in three years of Cup Series attempts, even having eight DNQs to his name. His saving grace would definitely have to be the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Montreal, where he finished second place.
After these drivers eventually fizzled out of the sport, whether due to poor results or retirement, the open-wheel invasion had come to an end. That is until 2022, in which a series of announcements were made.
The “Second Wave”
At the beginning of 2022, ex-Red Bull F1 driver Daniil Kvyat announced he’d be competing with the all-new Team Hezeberg to pilot their #26 car at the Indianapolis road course. This announcement came as a relative surprise to most, as many anticipated the Russian to announce a campaign in the World Endurance Championship (which he later would).
His starts at the Indianapolis road course, Watkins Glen, and Charlotte roval would not go well, ending all three races early with mechanical troubles. Though not much success would be seen from Kvyat, an odd theme began to appear in 2022 with more drivers from open-wheelers announcing select starts.
Kvyat was not the only ex-F1 driver at Watkins Glen, as 2007 Formula 1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen would also take part in the #91 Trackhouse Racing ride. Though his race would end in a crash on the back stretch chicane, the Finn had an excellent run going up to that point on his debut, running as high as P15 before the crash. Raikkonen would be back in 2023 for a round at Circuit of the Americas, but there was less to write home about there, finishing 29th.
From that very COTA race, there were two more notables there too: 2009 F1 World Champion Jenson Button and IndyCar driver Conor Daly. Respectively, Button would pilot the #15 Rick Ware Racing machine and Daly would pilot the #50 Money Team Racing car. Though Daly would end up retiring with mechanical woes, Button would have a stellar day, finishing P18 despite having lackluster equipment at his disposal.
With Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen expressing interest in NASCAR after their starts, plus interest from some more ex-F1 drivers like Daniel Ricciardo, it is very possible we could see another rendition of the open-wheel invasion. Following the announcement of Kamui Kobayashi piloting the #67 23XI car on Wednesday, it is very likely we are seeing another beginning of drivers from across the pond taking their stabs at stock car racing’s biggest stage.