Piquet Jr. hoping for happy Las Vegas return

The next-to-last last time I saw Nelson Piquet Jr. was two years ago, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He flashed by the media center running second on the last lap of the NASCAR truck series race.

The last time I saw him, he was doing a victory burnout.

He had made a daring pass of Matt Crafton in turn 2 of the final lap. It was his second truck series win, his first on an oval.

Boys from Brazil are not supposed to win stock car (or truck) races held on ovals, so it was thought young Piquet Jr. might be on his way in NASCAR, as well as providing it with a little diversity. Because isn’t that what NASCAR is always talking about when drivers aren’t punching each other in the face after races?

It didn’t work out that way. It didn’t work out that way in Formula One, either, where it was thought Piquet Jr. was destined to follow in his famous father’s slipstream.

The first Nelson Piquet had been a three-time world driving champion. Everybody thought his offspring would win a lot of F1 races, too, and wind up living on a yacht somewhere.

“Wrong place, wrong time,” Piquet Jr. says.

So now he’s back in Las Vegas, to drive in the Red Bull Global Rallycross season finale on a temporary circuit at The LINQ on the Strip on Tuesday and Wednesday. And he’s not the only former Formula One/NASCAR driver in the field, as the aptly named Scott Speed will drive a Volkswagen for Michael Andretti’s team.

Still, roaring down straightaways and flying over jumps on a hybrid track in the parking lot of a Strip casino seems a far cry from speeding through the bends at Monza and Monaco and Spa in Belgium.

Piquet Jr. seems OK with it, though, and race car drivers generally don’t look in the rear-view mirror, at least not while they still are putting pedal to metal. He only recently turned 29. So he doesn’t look back, unless someone asks about it, which someone did via telephone last week.

He’s still fast, and he has been competitive in just about any series in which he’s run, including Global Rallycross — though he has yet to win on the dirt and tarmac, he’s third in points heading into Las Vegas with a chance to win the title.

As for the stuff in his rear-view mirror, well, that’s what happens sometimes when you listen to others who think they know what’s best.

In Formula One, his ride was with the Renault team, where he was paired with Fernando Alonso, the series champion.

Comparing your talents as a first-year driver with those of the reigning two-time world driving champion can destroy a young man’s confidence, which is one thing; having your team manager demand you deliberately crash to bring out the safety car to let your famous teammate catch up to the leaders is quite another.

They called it Crashgate, and though Piquet Jr. was exonerated for his part in it, he thought it best to move on. And so he did — to NASCAR.

Instead of living on a yacht, he was living in North Carolina.

If you win a couple of races, you’ll attract a big sponsor, he was told. You’re handsome and articulate. Sponsors like that. He won a couple of races. He did not attract a big sponsor.

He’s still handsome and articulate.

“Unfortunately, the sport is very Southern,” he said of his three years spent driving cars and trucks on the chicken fried steak and gravy circuit. “It’s very hard for a foreign driver to make it happen unless you have a lot of sponsorship.”

He was nonetheless making it happen in the truck series, with those two wins and and a seventh-place finish in points in 2012. Then, with little notice or little sponsorship, it was decided he should move up to the Nationwide Series.

Bad move.

“I could have won the truck championship,” Piquet Jr. says. Instead, he got into a fight with Brian Scott on the cool down lap at Richmond.

So now instead of Formula One, or NASCAR, he drives in a bunch of different series: Stock Car Brazil, Blancpain Sprint Series, Formula E — for the new electric open-wheel cars. A sports car ride when he can get one. It isn’t Monza, Monaco or Spa; it isn’t Daytona or Charlotte. It pays the bills.

And he’s sort of digging Global Rallycross, where one can get a pit pass at a reasonable price and walk right up and touch the cars between races, or ask the drivers for autographs. Plus, they play loud music in the pits, and everybody’s sort of hopped up on energy drink, and they show all the races on TV.

“The rallycross is amazing,” Piquet Jr. says.

The races are short, and the cars smack into each other a lot, both on the dirt and on the tarmac. There’s also a technical side to it. Spectators hopped up on energy drink don’t appreciate the technical side as much.

Nelson Piquet Jr. said Kyle Busch would love Global Rallycross, and so would Jimmie Johnson. And they’d be good at it, because if you have talent and know how to make a car go fast, you can be successful in Rallycross, even without a big sponsor or a famous father.

Plus, they let you play loud music in the pits.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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