By Jared Turner
Special to Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
(July 20, 2011)
Nelson Piquet Jr. has never arrived at a NASCAR track carrying the mantle of being a prerace favorite.
That could change this weekend.
The ex-Formula One driver turned Camping World Truck Series rookie is set to return Friday night to Nashville Superspeedway, site of his career-best second-place finish back in April, to race in the Lucas Deep Clean 200.
For Piquet, whose only NASCAR experience prior to 2011 was five truck races and a lone Nationwide Series appearance last season, moving from F1 to NASCAR's No. 3 series has been no small adjustment.
Despite landing a full-time gig this season with truck series powerhouse Kevin Harvick Inc., Piquet has struggled to achieve consistently strong results.
Outside of his runner-up effort at Nashville, the Brazilian's best finish this season has been eighth—accomplished twice.
Needless to say, he's pumped about making his second trip to the 1.33-mile concrete oval.
"I'm very excited to head back to Nashville," Piquet said. "Every week the team continues to get better and better, so heading back to the track where we got our best finish gives me a lot of confidence. The guys at KHI continue to bring fast trucks to the track, and I know we can win. As we head into this weekend, I feel like we have a great combination to finally win a race."
Piquet's journey to this point differs vastly from most of his truck series counterparts.
The son of three-time Formula One champion Nelson Piquet, the younger Piquet began karting in 1993 at age eight in Brazil. He won three karting titles over eight years before advancing to open wheel cars in 2001.
Piquet won the 2002 South American F3 championship with 13 wins and two podium finishes, and in 2004 captured the British F3 championship with six wins and five poles.
Over one full and one partial Formula One season, Piquet earned a single podium finish driving for the fabled Renault team in 2008 and 2009.
NASCAR has represented a vast cultural shift for Piquet, but he's come to feel right at home.
"It's great to see how well-appreciated the truck series is wherever we go," said Piquet, who turns 26 on July 25. "The friendship everybody has together in the garage area, everybody's pretty close, everybody knows each other. I'm having my birthday next week and half of the garage is coming to my place. It's friendly. It's just very friendly and it's very healthy."
Piquet's Achilles heel this season has been finishing. He's recorded four DNFs—three of them a result of crashes—in 11 starts, and sits a distant 13th in points.
"He shows a lot of speed throughout the race," said KHI teammate and part-time truck series driver Elliott Sadler. "I think that is the quickest thing he's learned, is how to get speed out of his truck everywhere he's been. I think the first thing he needs to learn is racing in traffic and keeping his truck in one piece, making it to the end. That comes from experience."
Despite his famous pedigree and numerous motorsports achievements, Piquet believes he must earn his way in NASCAR, where his goal is to eventually reach the Sprint Cup level.
"I'm coming to a place (where) I didn't know anybody," said Piquet. "Nobody knows me, nobody knows my potential so I'm having to show it slowly, and I'm going to earn my place there (in Cup) in the future."
The most immediate order of business in Piquet's future is Friday night's race at Nashville, where he could be a major factor.
"Nelson seemed to adapt well to the last time we were there," crew chief Chris Carrier said. "We had a good truck, and our entire program continues to get better every race, so we're feeling very confident heading into this event."
What: Lucas Deep Clean 200
Where: Nashville Superspeedway; Lebanon, Tenn.
When: Friday, 8 p.m. ET
TV: Speed, 7:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN/Sirius-XM Satellite Ch. 90
Track layout: 1.33-mile oval
Race distance: 150 laps/200 miles
Qualifying: Friday, 5:10 p.m. ET
2010 winner: Todd Bodine
2010 polesitter: Todd Bodine
Points standings: 1. Johnny Sauter, 388; 2. Austin Dillon, 366: 3. Cole Whitt, 362; 4. James Buescher, 352; 5. Matt Crafton, 344; 6. Timothy Peters, 341; 7. Ron Hornaday, 335; 8. Parker Kligerman, 334; 9. Joey Coulter, 331; 10. Brendan Gaughan, 315.