Nelson Piquet Jr.’s decision to detour from a difficult situation in Formula One to a new life in NASCAR is looking better and better.
Piquet became the first Brazilian to score a victory in a NASCAR national series Saturday when he won at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
It was no fluke. The former F1 driver, son of three-time F1 champion Nelson Piquet, led 19 laps, including the final 17, and won by two seconds.
Piquet’s proud display of the Brazilian flag in victory lane started fireworks in his home country.
“For sure, they are loving it, even before the victory, seeing me learning and doing better and better every week,” he said Tuesday. “I think even because there are some drivers that are Brazilian drivers doing well this year, that's even helping me even a bit more to make all of the fans following NASCAR in Brazil. I think they are all pretty happy, and obviously this victory made them all go crazy.
“So I think it's perfect timing. F1 drivers are not doing well there, and we are doing well in America, so I think that's great for all of them.”
Piquet Jr. has more than 300,000 Twitter followers, a community that got quite active Saturday afternoon.
“For sure it's growing,” he said. “Obviously, from the 300,000-plus followers we have, the big majority of them are Brazilians. Obviously because I started Twitter before becoming to America, but yeah, just looking at the languages in the response, most of them are Portuguese, and there's more and more English coming along. I see more and more American fans following at the moment.
“But, I mean, everybody in Brazil, they are getting more and more – not only Brazilians, but even Americans are getting more and more involved, asking more questions, giving opinions, which is also something interesting which Twitter is very good for, so you understand what the fans are looking for and what they want and what they are expecting.”
Piquet Jr.’s biggest expectations this year center on the Camping World Truck Series and its championship. He was 10th last season and is sixth this year entering Thursday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway.
Can the Saturday breakthrough win in Nationwide be a boost for Piquet’s Truck situation?
“It's two different kind of worlds,” he said. “One thing is racing a road course, and the other thing is racing an oval. I'm not going to say that it didn't help me at all, but I didn't learn anything last weekend that would have helped me at Kentucky, for example.
“I think going back to my truck, going back to the program I was following before last week, just keep doing the job I was doing, learning and try to develop the truck.”
Piquet said he hopes to continue advancing while pursuing a patient course.
“A lot of drivers think that just because they run in a top sport like IndyCar, they think they can just jump into NASCAR and run against Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch,” he said. “These guys have been doing this for decades, not only in NASCAR Sprint Cup, but Nationwide, Trucks, Legends, or all of the other different races that there is under which these guys have started probably when they were four, five, six years old.
“So, wherever we came from, it's nearly coming from a different sport and having to learn again. I think there's no other way of doing it than how I've done it, coming into Truck and building myself up. Obviously, we did [win] a Nationwide race, but that was a road course, a little bit different.
“But you need to realize that you can have won a championship for IndyCar, whatever it was, when you get to a different sport, you have to start from whatever your level is. … It's difficult to compare because drivers have been there a long time or drivers have been doing Cup and are doing Truck at the moment, but still, I think that's the way it should be. I think that if I develop my skills or my knowledge about what I'm struggling with here, by the end of the year, I think by the time I get to Nationwide, I'll obviously work another one year or two to be able to be in Sprint Cup.
“But a lot of drivers have a lot of ego and think they should go to Sprint Cup, or maybe think that the series is not tough enough and they can be up there. I think a lot of drivers realize that what I'm doing is the right way to do it, and hopefully we'll get more drivers doing the same thing.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.