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.
Apr 20, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT
Former Red Bull F1 driver finishes third, while Porsche’s GTE-Pro squads finish 1-2 in class.
Apr 20, 2014, 5:10 PM EDT
Trophies and big paychecks are no longer the only things a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver and team get when they win a race. Now they get a big breakfast, too. According to Statesville.com, the Boxcar Grille in Statesville, N.C., has begun serving breakfast to winning teams in the Charlotte area after they return from capturing a Cup race.
Apr 20, 2014, 4:30 PM EDT
Both of their Le Mans Prototypes fail to see the checkered flag at Silverstone due to accidents.
Apr 20, 2014, 4:10 PM EDT
While he probably can’t throw a football more than 20 or 30 yards, Chad Knaus is a diehard Carolina Panthers fan. And while football and stock car racing are polar opposites, they do have some similarities, particularly when it comes to team building, success, strategy and preparation for each game or race. Knaus, a six-time Sprint Cup champion crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, recently called Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera to throw around and share ideas that might be beneficial to both men.
Apr 20, 2014, 2:49 PM EDT
Hermie Sadler will never be confused with former wrestling greats Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin – not even Rik “Wooooo” Flair. But the NASCAR analyst for Fox Sports 1 has been a longtime fan of wrestling and will now become somewhat of a decision maker, too.
Apr 20, 2014, 1:58 PM EDT
Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson, and Nicolas Lapierre take the No. 8 Toyota to the win in the Six Hours of Silverstone.
Apr 20, 2014, 1:07 PM EDT
More than 20 years after graduating, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going back to school. Well, for at least one day. Earnhardt will take part in a two-hour session on May 8 with two student groups, wrapped around an all-school assembly at Seaman High School in Topeka, Kansas, according to a report in the Topeka Capital-Journal.
Apr 20, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
We hope your Easter’s filled with family, friends…and maybe some jelly beans.
Apr 20, 2014, 9:45 AM EDT
Finn can only come home in eighth for Ferrari, some 50 seconds behind teammate Fernando Alonso.
Apr 20, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
Largely unnoticed, these two youngsters were brilliant today in China.
Apr 20, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
German driver saw no reason to follow team orders, but soon realised that there was no point in holding Ricciardo up.
Apr 20, 2014, 7:15 AM EDT
German driver downbeat after losing to Hamilton yet again, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a great result.
Apr 20, 2014, 6:30 AM EDT
Embarrassing error sees race end on lap 54, not lap 56; Kobayashi the only driver to lose a position.
Apr 20, 2014, 6:15 AM EDT
Ferrari ends torrid week with something to smile about as Alonso finishes third in China.
Apr 20, 2014, 5:47 AM EDT
German driver refuses to let Daniel Ricciardo past at first, but ultimately thinks better of it.
Apr 20, 2014, 5:30 AM EDT
British driver delighted with team effort, and pleased to see teammate Nico Rosberg reach the podium again.
Apr 20, 2014, 4:43 AM EDT
British driver goes wire-to-wire to claim his third straight win and number 25 of his F1 career.
Apr 20, 2014, 2:15 AM EDT
As the Mercedes turf war rumbles on, Red Bull and Ferrari will be waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces.
Apr 20, 2014, 2:00 AM EDT
Here’s how the drivers will line up for the 2014 Chinese Grand Prix today, live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 2:30am ET.
Apr 20, 2014, 1:30 AM EDT
He has come close before, but Hamilton finally can make it three wins in a row today in China.
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