It might sound a bit out of character, but DTM star Mattias Ekström managed to smile about his 31st place finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Richmond last weekend.
The satisfaction came after he raced the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota for 300 trouble-free miles in a format he’d never tried before, which made his NASCAR oval debut a success.
“I decided that I didn’t want to go out and wreck a car by doing something stupid and taking risks, so I went at my pace and built up gradually because I know that always pays off in the end. Being patient is often the key to success. I had one touch on the wall, and except for that I got into a rhythm and tried to get some experience,” he said.
“It was pretty close to what I expected – the biggest surprise was the restarts." –Mattias Ekström
“As soon as the race started, I thought, ‘Ahhh, if you keep going like this, maybe you could finish in the top 25,’ but things didn’t run that way and we finished 31st. Sure, I would like to have finished further up – I was up to 27th at one stage, but we just didn’t have the pace to keep it or improve it and we fell back a little.”
One reason the two-time DTM champion couldn’t keep up the pace was the simple fact that there were a relatively small number of cautions during Saturday night’s Air Guard 400. With the 300-mile race essentially split into four long green flag runs between three yellows, it was difficult to sort out the set-up and tune the car to the conditions. As a comparison, last year’s autumn race at Richmond International Raceway featured 10 yellow flags.
“You start off with sticky tires and the car feels awesome, but then you have to do 100 laps and you are either way tight or way loose,” Ekström added. “I think the thing Europeans underestimate the most about NASCAR is how much you have to tune the car during the race, which makes it so interesting.”
Richmond marked Ekström’s second start in the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota. He also got into the car at the Infineon Raceway in June for the road course race in Sonoma. He finished 21st in California after being spun out of 11th by another driver.
In the end, 396 laps around the three-quarter mile Richmond track offered a huge learning experience for Ekström, who said he tried to be a huge sponge and soak up as much information as quickly as possible.
“It was pretty close to what I expected – the biggest surprise was the restarts. Everybody was racing hard and side-by-side – it was pretty interesting. You would drive side-by-side for ages without something happening. I thought it would go single file much quicker,” he said.
“And the way the track changed was a bit of a surprise. When we were in practice, it was mainly running on the bottom most of the time, but in the race you could start running higher. The grip was changing quite a lot as the night wore on and the car’s balance was changing.”
Finishing four laps adrift of the leaders was cushioned by the fact that Ekström ended the night ahead of established NASCAR stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle. The Red Bull-backed driver also wasn’t alone in being lapped, as only 14 of 43 cars were on the lead lap when the checkered flag flew.
Teammate Scott Speed’s No. 82 Red Bull Toyota wasn’t one of the lucky 14, but he fared better than Ekström, finishing two laps adrift in 24th.
"It would be nice to go back because now at least I have a feel for what it’s all about." –Mattias Ekström
In addition to his on-track education, Ekström received a crash course in NASCAR paddock cuisine. For a guy who said previously that the weirdest thing he ever ate at a racetrack was a bagel, getting accustomed to the American-style cuisine was a bit of an adjustment.
“In DTM, where I drive, we have really nice hospitality and we put value on different things,” he said. “In NASCAR, they stay more on the grills at the track outside the haulers making a different style of food. It’s nothing bad; it’s just something new to get used to. It’s normal for them, just not for me.”
After Richmond, Ekström flew back to Europe on Sunday night and battled a bit of jetlag as he prepared for a return to his Red Bull Audi this weekend at the 2.292 mile Oschersleben circuit in northern Germany. But the red eyes were more than worth it.
“I enjoyed it, and it would be nice to go back because now at least I have a feel for what it’s all about,” he said. “I saw that experience counts a lot in this sport, because you have to have a good base to start off with when you come to the track and you have to have a driver who gives perfect feedback, so the crew know where to go with the changes.”