If they didn't know his name before, they know it now. Mattias Ekström, the 31-year-old Red Bull driver from Sweden, finished 21st in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut Sunday at Infineon Raceway. But the result doesn't tell the whole story of the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota.
"I cannot say from my heart that I am happy with 21st," he said.
Nor should he be.
He started 38th and pitted early under the first caution. As the front half of the field pitted under green soon after, Ekström cycled to the front and into the lead for seven laps. He gave way to fresh tires, pitted from the third position and rejoined traffic in 21st. That was the No. 83 team's strategy - pit and charge back to the front, pit and charge back to the front.
The day had all the makings of a top-10 finish, until lap 92 when the No. 12 of Brad Keselowski hooked the No. 83, sending Ekström spinning off course in turn eight. After a stop to repair cosmetic damage, Ekström dropped from 11th to 34th. A late caution with eight laps remaining allowed him to pick off more than 10 cars to finish 21st.
"Everything matched my expectations," Ekström said. "Everyone raced hard - and raced hard from the beginning. It is unfortunate we couldn't get a better result. The car felt awesome all race, especially in long runs. Everyone at Red Bull and Red Bull Racing Team has been so great to me for giving me this opportunity. It felt great to lead my first laps in NASCAR."
No. 82 driver Scott Speed was on a completely different strategy from his teammate. He, too, pitted under the first caution and cycled to the front on the ensuing green-flag run. The team kept pitting to correct the handling on the front end.
Speed, who at one point ran as high as third, discovered early that his No. 82 Red Bull Toyota was "too loose at high speed, too tight at low speed" and that the car was "plowing" in turn 11. But he hung on to it, and kept the No. 82 within striking distance of the top 15 all afternoon.
Two late caution flags spoiled the team's fuel strategy. He was running 15th on the second-to-last restart with 17 laps to go, but the yellow waved again with eight laps remaining. Speed wanted tires, and crew chief Ryan Pemberton granted him his wish. Speed restarted 28th for the five-lap shootout, and picked up 10 positions in less than 10 miles to finish 18th.
It was the California native's best road-course finish in three starts. Last season, he finished 37th at Infineon and 22nd at Watkins Glen. Speed remains 26th in the driver standings, while the No. 83 picked up a position in car owner points to 24th.
Speed will now move on to New Hampshire for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 in Loudon on Sunday, June 27. Ekström heads back to Europe and his regular job as driver of Audi Sport's No. 5 A4 DTM in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters series. Reed Sorenson will take over behind the wheel of the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota, making his debut in New Hampshire.
For more info, check out the Red Bull Racing Team web site.