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Kobayashi feels "100% ready" for NASCAR Cup debut

Kamui Kobayashi will be the first Japanese driver to start a NASCAR Cup race in over 20 years when he takes the green flag Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Kamui Kobayashi, 23XI Racing, Toyota Genuine Parts Toyota Camry

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

The veteran racer will start 28th in his Cup debut, driving the No. 67 23XI Racing Toyota.

He joins a star-studded field that includes Shane van Gisbergen, Brodie Kostecki, Jenson Button, and Mike Rockenfeller.

Kobayashi, a two-time WEC champion and the overall winner in the 2021 running of the Le Mans 24, has never made a start in any level of stock car racing before. 

But the 36-year-old has plenty of experience elsewhere, starting 75 Formula 1 races between 2009 and 2014, scoring one podium and finishing as high as 12th in the championship standings.

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Leading up to this event, Kobayashi has done several hours of simulator work and tested the car on-track at Virginia International Raceway. He can also lean on his team-mates, which includes defending Indy RC winner Tyler Reddick.

"It’s been a long preparation for myself," said Kobayashi during a Saturday press conference at IMS. "I’ve been traveling from Japan three times from Europe to Charlotte and I was preparing being here at the Indy Road Course. I’m really happy to finally get here. I think the preparation was pretty good. I think 23XI helped me to get here and be pretty confident. Obviously, I think Toyota and TRD have helped me a lot in the simulator sessions to be prepared for this road course. Honestly, I think with my preparation and everything that I’m 100% ready for this weekend.”

Limited track time

While finding his rhythm in practice, Kobayashi had a brief off-road excursion while being pressured by other cars. Besides that, he hasn't put a foot wrong.

He ended the 20-minute practice in 31st, completing five laps. Speaking on the limited track time for all drivers, he said: "Honestly, I think just concerns of 20 minutes of practice here and then straight to qualifying. Obviously, we need to prepare as much as we can but 20 minutes -- it’s not enough time, but this is how it is.

"I will say the car behavior is challenging for me because I’ve never driven such less downforce with the weight. I think weight transfer in the car is different than what I’m used to driving. When I did the rookie test at VIR it was pretty good. Just after a couple laps I feel pretty confident. I think here after the rookie test I would say it’s not too bad to be honest, and with all the preparation, it helped my confidence level as well.”

In qualifying, Kobayashi lapped the road course in 1:29.077s and missed out on advancing into the final round by 0.595s. He managed to out-qualify Button and Rockenfeller, who are both making their third Cup Series start this weekend.

Kobayashi explained that no comparison can really be made between the current Cup car and other vehicles he has driven in his career. "You’re driving and even you’re fighting on the straight. Be on the straight before braking because that’s quite important. When we’re racing in my race car on the straight it’s just you’re relaxed, but this car you’re still fighting on the straight. Obviously, it’s a new challenge for me but it’s still the racing is good with this kind of car because it’s like the drivers are fighting all the way.”

Kamui Kobayashi, 23XI Racing, Toyota Genuine Parts Toyota Camry

Kamui Kobayashi, 23XI Racing, Toyota Genuine Parts Toyota Camry

Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images

With just three races to go until the playoffs, it can be expected that Sunday's race will have no shortage of contact. Kobayashi is aware of that, but he still aims to save his equipment for the end and won't be baited into a slugfest in the early running.

“I think you fight all of the way but you need to protect your car to be ready in the last part (of the race). It’s not only to fight is the most important, but you have to manage all of the race. Any race is the same," he explained.

"When you’re doing an endurance race for example, you need to manage the car. It’s not only fighting for 24 hours, it’s just you manage yourself. Once you have a good opportunity, you just maintain the gap. You manage the car, be ready because I think after you get to the caution, because obviously the pack is down again and you have to restart. When you have the best car, you’re at an advantage. I use my previous experience as much as I can and I believe if there’s good speed myself, you need to manage the car. I think that’s how you fight in the racing here.”

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