Jun 21, 2013, 7:22 PM EDT
A familiar face showed up Friday at Sonoma Raceway. Sure, he’s lost a bit of hair — not to mention it’s starting to get speckled with grey — but there’s no mistaking a guy who was once one of the best race car drivers in the world.
Remember Jacques Villeneuve? He won the last CART series championship in 1995 before the big split between CART and the upstart Indy Racing League the following year.
From there, Villeneuve went on to a fairly successful Formula One career, winning 11 of 163 starts, with 13 poles and 23 podium appearances. He didn’t miss a beat after leaving CART, finishing second in his first F1 season in 1996 and then winning the championship in 1997.
But since his last year in F1 in 2006 — he only made two-thirds of the 18 races on the schedule — the Montreal native and son of the late Canadian racing legend Gilles Villeneuve has been bopping around as a part-time NASCAR driver, primarily in the Nationwide Series (NNS).
Not so this weekend, though. Even though the NNS races Saturday at Road America, Villeneuve will attempt to qualify the James Finch-owned No. 51 Chevrolet for Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 Sprint Cup race at Sonoma Raceway. It will be the first time he’s ever competed on the 1.99-mile road course.
“We wanted to put a driver in our car who would give us the best chance to win at Sonoma,” Finch told ESPN.com. “When the opportunity came up to have someone like Jacques in our car, we were very happy to make that happen. It’s a long way out there [to California] to not be competitive. He gives us the chance to not only do really well but to actually win the race. We led laps there last year and almost did win it (Kurt Busch drove the car in last year’s race and finished third). We plan on getting the trophy this time.”
While Villeneuve hasn’t raced a Sprint Cup car since 2010 (finished 29th in the Brickyard 400), Villeneuve could pose a big threat to the Sprint Cup regulars on Sunday if he makes it through Saturday’s qualifying.
You see, road courses are Villeneuve’s bread and butter. No matter what series or sanctioning body, he’s almost always in his element when he gets to turn left — and right. He also has been known for not being shy when it comes to trading paint and banging fenders.
For example: In nine career NNS races, Villeneuve hasn’t won, but he’s come darn close to it, with three top-five and two other top-10 finishes, including finishes of sixth (Road America) and Montreal (third) last season.
Villeneuve was hailed as a great addition to the Sprint Cup world when it was announced he would join several other world-class drivers as full-time competitors in the series in 2008, including Scotsman Dario Franchitti and Canadian Patrick Carpentier, while Australian Marcos Ambrose competed full-time in the Nationwide Series. Juan Pablo Montoya had joined the series full-time a season earlier, essentially blazing the trail for the imports.
Unfortunately, Villeneuve’s career ended before it even had a chance to start, as promised funding for a full-time ride with Bill Davis evaporated along with his ride before the season even started. Franchitti and Carpentier didn’t last the season, either. Only Ambrose has emerged as the lone survivor of the foreign onslaught, in addition to the trailblazing Montoya.
It’s too bad, because Villeneuve likely could have done well if he had sponsorship and the right team.
Still, it’s good to see him back in his first Cup race in three seasons. Even though he’s now 42, Villeneuve still has a lot of racing left in him. Who knows, maybe this could be a sign of things to come — and maybe a second chance that he so deserves.
Aug 23, 2014, 1:09 AM EDT
Dramatic day for Pro Mazda, USF2000 Friday in Sonoma.
Aug 22, 2014, 11:35 PM EDT
Ryan Blaney passed Kyle Busch with six laps left in Friday night’s Food City 300 Nationwide Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, and then held on the rest of the way to earn his second career NNS victory.
Aug 22, 2014, 8:30 PM EDT
Update (8:30 p.m. ET): The engines have been fired and tonight’s Food City 300 is ready to roll.
Aug 22, 2014, 7:15 PM EDT
The Bowtie has won the IndyCar manufacturer’s title in all three seasons since returning to North American open-wheel racing in 2012.
Aug 22, 2014, 6:54 PM EDT
Jeff Gordon looked like he had the pole for Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. But Kevin Harvick had other ideas.
Aug 22, 2014, 6:34 PM EDT
At 7-feet tall, ESPN NASCAR analyst, team co-owner and former NBA star Brad Daugherty is a formidable presence. He’s also known to play a practical joke every now and then.
Aug 22, 2014, 5:39 PM EDT
Unpredictable weather conditions have impacted the Food City 500 in its March spot, which the event has had since the 2005 season.
Aug 22, 2014, 5:21 PM EDT
The 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule will be officially presented on Tuesday, August 26 at 5 p.m. ET on a special 60-minute edition of NASCAR AMERICA.
Aug 22, 2014, 5:05 PM EDT
“Rowdy” earns the pole for tonight’s Food City 300 with a lap of 125.142 miles per hour in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Aug 22, 2014, 3:52 PM EDT
Former NASCAR Nationwide Series team owner Ed Whitaker passed away Friday at his home in Bristol, Va., business associate Peter Laura told the Bristol Herald Courier.
Aug 22, 2014, 3:04 PM EDT
In statement, Alexander Rossi takes the high road after missing out on Grand Prix debut with Marussia in Spa.
Aug 22, 2014, 2:41 PM EDT
Late in the 50-minute session, the Roush Fenway Racing driver zipped around the half-mile oval at 131.048 mph in the No. 17 Ford Fusion.
Aug 22, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT
Here’s today’s round-up from the paddock at Spa-Francorchamps.
Aug 22, 2014, 1:30 PM EDT
In the year of the power unit, Spa is rewarding the Mercedes-powered teams.
Aug 22, 2014, 1:27 PM EDT
Russian GP3 debutante Konstantin Tereschenko goes for a wild ride at Spa, but mercifully emerges unscathed.
Aug 22, 2014, 1:16 PM EDT
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver turns a lap of 131.083 mph around the high-banked half-mile to lead Friday’s first practice session.
Aug 22, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
As good as he may be, is Max Verstappen too young to be racing up against drivers twice his age?
Aug 22, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT
Son of ex-racer Jos set to become the youngest ever F1 driver next season at the age of 17.
Aug 22, 2014, 12:15 PM EDT
At 13th on the Chase Grid with three regular season races left, the former Sprint Cup champion isn’t feeling the need to choose between going for a win or having a good points day.
Aug 22, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
Mercedes once again dominated practice, finishing first and second in both sessions on Friday at Spa.
- Ryan Blaney passes Kyle Busch on final restart, hangs on to win Nationwide race at Bristol 0
- Kevin Harvick edges Jeff Gordon for Bristol Sprint Cup pole 0
- Will A.J. Allmendinger seek payback for Brad Daugherty’s practical joke? 0
- 2015 NASCAR Schedule to be Revealed Tuesday, 5 p.m. ET, on special NASCAR AMERICA 0
- Rossi disappointed, but diplomatic, after Marussia no-go 1
- Hamilton strikes back to top FP2 ahead of Rosberg in Belgium 0
- F1 Paddock Pass: Belgian Grand Prix (VIDEO) 0