Nelson Piquet Jr. has plenty to prove
It was Nelson Piquet Jr.'s first victory in his first Nationwide Series start of 2012 and just his third all time. It was a win from the pole enabled by a fast car and applied ability. It was a win at Road America in rural Wisconsin last June, bettering such road course craftsmen as Ron Fellows.
It was the first victory at the next level for the son and namesake of a three-time Formula One champion, who himself had left the world's most popular race circuit amid controversy and found a new career in stock cars. It was the first win by a Brazilian in NASCAR.
But it wasn't the most popular storyline. It wasn't even close.
Jacques Villeneuve's shunting of then-top-five Danica Patrick into a runoff on the final lap had cost the series' most popular driver what could have been her best finish to date in NASCAR. Villeneuve was not contrite. Patrick's crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., was incensed, rebuking the former F1 champion on pit road in a confrontation that appeared one choice word from becoming physical.
At least Piquet got the trophy.
"That's how it's always going to be. I'm never going to be the center of attention over Danica or over Villeneuve," Piquet told ESPN.com. "Sometimes it is a bit frustrating that you get overshadowed by Danica spinning or Danica is cussing or Danica is angry or Villeneuve is doing some stupid moves. … I am going to have to live with it. It is always going to be that way."
Piquet, who spoke last summer of what his win could mean in South America for him and the sport, said he was surprised NASCAR didn't leverage the moment in Brazil.
"NASCAR needs Danica and that's how it's going to be," he said. "They don't feel they need an international figure. They don't maybe see the importance of how big Brazil is and how important Brazil could be for them, so they're not taking advantage. I cannot force them to do that. It's up to them."
Coercing potential Brazilian companies into becoming sponsors for a series still relatively obscure in the country -- despite the popularity of domestic stock car racing -- has been up to him, said Piquet, who won Truck series races for Turner Scott Motorsports at Michigan and Las Vegas after the Nationwide victory last season. He knows that securing some of these potential benefactors could be crucial in his future.
"I don't know where I am going to be next year," he said. "That will all depends on if the team finds sponsors for me or a different team finds sponsors for me. And it depends on performance. I don't want to be running the way I'm running."
Although TSM has the potential to improve after some key personnel changes in the engineering department, Piquet said consistency remains a major concern. His crew, a collection of former Truck series and Nationwide personnel, continues to develop. However, Piquet was loathe to too quickly deem a season-high ninth-place finish last week at Michigan a sign of progress.
"It's one race," said Piquet, who is 13th in driver points with just one top-10 in 13 starts. "I think we had new cars over there."
"I think one of the things that is missing here is more consistency between the three cars. When you see the Penske cars, when one is doing well, they are all doing well, or the RCR cars, when one is doing well, they're all doing well. That's the thing I think they're missing over here, maybe a guideline or something working on the same page. One week [teammate] Justin [Allgaier] is running up there and Kyle's [Larson] in the middle and I'm in the back, and the next week Kyle's running up there, I'm in the middle and Justin is in the back."
Allgaier is third in points with two top-5s and eight top-10s. Larson is ninth with four top-5s and eight top-10s.
"I hope we get better. I love the team. I want to be over here, but the way we're running, we're going to lose sponsorship," Piquet said. "Sponsors don't want to be running past 10th place. We need to get better. I'm working harder. I'm hoping things are better. We have the right people. We got rid of some people. We got some new guys. We are in the right direction, but these things take a while sometimes."
With team personnel changes beginning to congeal and the distraction from an April pit road incident with Brian Scott behind him -- according to Piquet, an incident that left a friend in the hospital for a month after being accosted by two RCR crewmen in the coaches lot -- Piquet arrives back at the cathedral of sharp curves and fried dairy products guardedly hopeful.
"It's always nice to get a chance to go do something I have done my whole life, and I do it well, and even more at Road America, where we had an excellent, perfect weekend when we were there," he said. "You could say we have a lot of pressure to repeat our success over there -- I am sure we are going to do very well."
Crew chief Chris Carrier concurred, telling the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "This team, this company, has a really good history of Nationwide road racing, and they have a pretty good handle on it. They have good equipment and a mindset and approach that is always good. Road racing keeps a lot of the basic concepts. And a good road-race driver is pretty good no matter whatever road course you take him to. Nelson is obviously one of the best."
Piquet had the same feeling last season, but the presence of several lettered road course racers prevented even the confident 27-year-old from projecting a victory.
"I knew we were going to be good. I didn't know we were going to be that good," he said. "I had never been to the track. I had never been in the car. I had guys like Ron Fellows and [Michael] McDowell and Villeneuve and Max Papis that had been trying to win a race forever and had been doing it forever.
"Pardon my language but there is an expression in Brazil … we say. 'You don't have three balls.' [I] wasn't going to do any magic. I thought to myself that we were going to contend for the win, but I don't have three balls compared to everyone else. Honestly, we did very well. The car was good, everything worked out well. The car was just perfect."
He's hoping for a little more of the same on Saturday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN). And maybe that a few more people will notice.