Monday, June 24, 2024

Kamui Kobayashi making NASCAR debut at Indianapolis

Kamui Kobayashi is taking his legendary sports car résumé to the stock car world. On Wednesday, at a press conference leading up to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota announced he will make his NASCAR Cup Series début at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on 13 August, driving the #67 Toyota Camry for 23XI Racing.

Kobayashi is regarded as one of the best sports car racers today, having won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2021 and a pair of FIA World Endurance Championships for Toyota Gazoo Racing, whom he also runs as team principal. He and his team currently sit second in the WEC’s Hypercar standings, with two wins at Sebring and Spa, and is coming off a runner-up finish in the 2022 edition of Le Mans. He also has a pair of 24 Hours of Daytona overall victories to his name with Cadillac; his two latest runs in 2021 and 2022 came alongside fellow Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and NASCAR great Jimmie Johnson, both of whom are racing a Cup car at Le Mans as part of the Garage 56 programme.

Outside of sports cars, he was a veteran in open-wheel cars and competed in Formula One for Toyota, Sauber, and Caterham from 2009 to 2014. He scored his lone podium at his home race in the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix. The 36-year-old has raced full-time in Super Formula since 2022, finishing seventeenth in the 2022 championship and running thirteenth four races into 2023.

The Amagasaki native will be the second Japanese native to compete in the Cup Series after Hideo Fukuyama did four races in 2002 and 2003, and the seventh in any national division joining Shigeaki HattoriKenji Momota, Kenkō Miura, Akinori Ogata, and Toshio Suzuki. However, Kobayashi is the first to do so for Toyota at the Cup level; Ogata and Miura raced Toyotas in the Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series, while the American-born Ryan Ellis is the first of Japanese descent to race a Toyota in Cup.

“NASCAR is something different in the culture of motorsports compared to Japan and Europe. As a driver, it’s the American dream,” Kobayashi stated. “I was lucky to be able to race in IMSA the last couple of years. It’s a different form of racing, but I think the racing technology is at a high level.”

23XI Racing fields the #23 and #45 for Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick, respectively, but also opened a #67 car for special one-off entries. The third vehicle first appeared at the season-opening Daytona 500 in February with action sports legend Travis Pastrana, who finished eleventh in his maiden Cup race.

Kobayashi joins a growing list of international racing stars to dabble in the Cup Series, which many have attributed to the rise in road courses and the Next Gen car being more compatible with such tracks. Fellow F1 alumni Jenson Button and Kimi Räikkönen have made Cup starts in 2023 as has sports car ace Jordan Taylor, the trio racing together at COTA in March; Button is also at Le Mans in the Garage 56 car while Taylor is that entry’s driver coach. Three-time Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen will make his NASCAR début at Chicago in July.

“We are thrilled to support Kamui in his first NASCAR Cup Series start as we field another competitive Toyota for the race in Indianapolis,” 23XI president Steve Lauletta commented. “This race will also serve as a great opportunity for our team to compete with and learn from a highly accomplished driver. Earlier in the season, the #67 team did a great job preparing and executing at the Daytona 500, and we look forward to the same with Kamui. We are also excited to introduce Kamui’s many international fans to 23XI and our sport.”