Button, Räikkönen racing NASCAR in Austin illustrates how perception of stock cars has changed in F1

"If I'm being honest, never in a million years ..."

Jenson Button, the 15-time Formula One race winner, is speaking for himself. At least, that is his intent. The reality is that his statement of excited disbelief is a sentiment shared by everyone who will be hard at work in the paddock of Circuit of the Americas outside of Austin, Texas, this weekend. That's where the 2009 F1 world champion will make his stock car racing debut.

He won't be the only F1 world champion on the starting grid, either. Don't worry. Your eyes and brain work just fine. You read that right. A pair of F1 world titlists -- Button in a Rick Ware Racing Ford (powered by Stewart-Haas Racing) and '07 champ Kimi Räikkönen in Trackhouse Racing's Project 91 Chevy -- will be in the field for Sunday's EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix.

There are a lot of farms in Texas. So, excuse any racers of a certain age if you spot them looking skyward at COTA to see if any pigs are flying over the racetrack. Because those who were around in the 2000s saw Juan Pablo Montoya win twice in 255 starts and remembered by most NASCAR fans as the guy who blew up a jet dryer at Daytona. They saw Scott Speed move from Red Bull's fledgling junior F1 team (then Toro Rosso) to its infant Cup Series outfit and struggle to qualify for races, scoring only four top 10s in 118 starts. And anyone older than that, well, they saw nothing. Unless they were at Rockingham in 1967 when two-time champion Jim Clark finished 31st out of 40 cars.

"The most amazing thing I ever saw was Jim Clark at Rockingham, and it was talking to him in the garage," NASCAR Hall of Famer Benny Parsons recalled prior to his death in 2007. "He was on a bicycle and I was talking to him for like 10 minutes before I realized he had been sitting on that bike, totally still, the whole time. No kickstand. Just sitting there. That's how great his balance was. He loved NASCAR. But he died in a crash the next year and all I could think was, we may never see another Formula One champion in NASCAR ever again."

Parsons' feelings were a common refrain. Why? Because everyone knew that Clark's feelings about NASCAR were uncommon in the F1 world.

Now, that finally might be changing. At least, the opportunities are.

"It's not that I didn't want to race in NASCAR, especially in a Cup car, I just never believed that I would have the opportunity," Button, the 43-year-old British racer explains to ESPN. "But here we are. And as a racer and a racing a fan, I am thankful for that."

So are many others. Those in the sport are genuinely thrilled about an era when crossing over from the planet's most prestigious racing series (F1 machines that costs hundreds of millions of dollars to manage) to North America's dominant form of motorsport (the once-frowned-upon sedans described as "taxicab racing" by the European set), while still a bit shocking, now doesn't feel quite so impossible.

Keep in mind, when we use words such as "thrilled" and "excitedly" in a story that includes Räikkönen, those terms need to also be considered within the context of a 21-time F1 winner who is so famously stoic he became known as "The Iceman."

The Finn, also 43, looked like a marble bust in the Louvre when he made his first Cup start last summer at Watkins Glen, explaining, "Yeah, it will be great." After Räikkönen's moments with the media, Trackhouse team owner Justin Marks quickly followed up with, "Trust me, he's excited."

As are a lot of people, led by Marks himself. It was one year ago, only a few months into his first full season as a Cup Series team owner, when Marks, a sports car racer, was informed by a mutual friend that Räikkönen might be interested in piloting Trackhouse's Project 91 car, a program designed to recruit international racing stars to come try their gloved hands at NASCAR in a part-time ride.

"I booked a flight to Switzerland immediately," Marks, 41, recalls now. "I flew all the way there and all the way back for a 40-minute meeting. That's how excited I was about the idea of Kimi getting into a Cup car."

Räikkönen made one start each in NASCAR's Truck and Xfinity Series in May 2011, during his first F1 retirement, both on the Charlotte Motor Speedway oval in Kyle Busch Motorsports entries backed by Joe Gibbs Racing. He finished 15th in the truck and 27th in the Xfinity car. The plan was to also run a Cup race, but that never happened because his retirement ended that winter, and he was back in Formula One for a 10-year stint that ended at the close of the 2021 season.

Button had retired from F1 four years earlier, anxious to be a full-time father. He made a start in the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans and knocked around a handful of other road racing series from time to time, but largely stayed out of the cockpit. Now Button will join Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller this summer in a Hendrick Motorsports-built experimental stock car NASCAR Garage 56 entry at Le Mans and has signed on with Rick Ware Racing to run three Cup races this season: COTA, the Chicago street course and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Räikkönen, who was in North Carolina racking up simulator time and pit-stop practices ahead of traveling to Austin, is signed for only this race, but Marks says, "the door is open for Kimi to do more." He also hinted that more open-wheel names might be in the Project 91 car sooner than later.

So, what has changed? How did the racing world go from believing F1 stars, retired or not, in stock cars was about as likely as Denny Hamlin and Ross Chastain vacationing together to a pair of world champs running Mustangs and Camaros with more expected to follow in their Goodyear tire tracks?

"I think that as culture has advanced in the world, that world seems to have gotten smaller over the last 10 years, just as we're so much more connected with each other," Marks explains. "The opportunities for crossovers are just more readily available now than they've ever been, and we all know each other better now. Our worlds don't seem so far apart and mysterious. Racers are racers and they watch everything now. Kimi had watched Trackhouse on road courses and saw us win last season and knew we were for real. That certainly helps."

Button is a self-described Tony Stewart fan. He certainly knows of Stewart-Haas Racing because of Haas F1. And his involvement with NASCAR's Le Mans effort has had him in the Charlotte area a lot. He long ago befriended the likes of Johnson and Jeff Gordon, met through all-star racing events and even social media.

One is left wondering how that smaller world would have affected the legends of past. Dale Earnhardt used to spend his race mornings up early with ESPN on because he loved to watch Ayrton Senna. When Michael Schumacher would pop in at the Texas Motor Speedway -- yes, he did that, visiting from a ranch he quietly owned in the Lone Star State -- he would giddily ask to hear stories about "The Intimidator."

So, while the fan bases and executives worked hard to keep every motorsports discipline divided, it seems that a mutual respect between the racers themselves has always existed. But time, space and crowded schedules prevented them from making friendships and crossover moves. The shrinking digital world has fixed most of that. The only obstacle remaining was the cars. Now that has been fixed, too.

"It's still scary because it is still so much different than what I am used to," Button confesses, reminding that he has five COTA starts in F1. (Räikkönen has eight COTA starts, including a win in 2018.) "But this new Cup car, on paper at least, the transition should be easier."

Ah yes, the Next Gen Cup car. When owners like Marks jet to Europe to sell the likes of Kimi & Co. on stock car racing, these new taxicabs make it a much easier pitch.

"Getting into a NASCAR ride required such a specific proprietary approach and personality and style of driving, that you saw the guys who did try it were just never successful. [Jacques] Villeneuve, Montoya, Scott Speed, all of them," says Marks, who himself struggled to make the transition from sports cars during his 80 starts across NASCAR's top three series. "The Next Gen car is much more in line with where other motorsports are around the world.

"It's finally got an independent rear suspension and a sequential gearbox. It's now the type of race car that doesn't require this very specific type of driving that talented people from all over the world struggle with because it's just so different. This car is much more like a GT car, like a big, heavy GT car. There is a huge learning curve, but it's a curve these guys can navigate."

They certainly hope that they can. Button, Räikkönen, IMSA ace Jordan Taylor -- subbing for the injured Chase Elliott -- and IndyCar racer Conor Daly all will be at COTA this weekend. Perhaps one year from now, there will be more with F1 and other "outsider" pedigree. Perhaps not.

But no matter where this goes from here, it has already gone further than any gray-haired NASCAR or F1 paddock veteran could have ever hoped to see.

"At the end of the day, I am an auto racing fan," Button says. "I think that is true for any of us who made this crazy decision to go racing for a living. And as motorsports fans, the chance to see drivers trying different disciplines, and the fact that people are working to help them do that, that's a win for everyone."