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.
May 22, 2015, 3:39 PM EDT
Tristan Vautier recaps a roller coaster month of May, where he’ll have a last-minute opportunity to race in the Indianapolis 500 with Dale Coyne Racing.
May 22, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
A third straight feature race win for Stoffel Vandoorne sees him extend his lead at the top of the drivers’ championship.
May 22, 2015, 2:40 PM EDT
Harvey scores the win in Indy Lights’ biggest race of the year.
May 22, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
Force India’s deputy team principal lashes out at the F1 Strategy Group, calls for a return to autocratic rule by the FIA and the F1 Group.
May 22, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT
Bids to supply tires to F1 upon the next change to the technical regulations now being taken.
May 22, 2015, 12:06 PM EDT
Notes as they develop from the ground in Indianapolis for Carb Day for the 99th Indianapolis 500.
May 22, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT
Bianchi remains in a coma in French hospital after sustaining severe head injuries at the Japanese Grand Prix last October.
May 22, 2015, 11:38 AM EDT
The team owner would like the season’s calendar expanded.
May 22, 2015, 10:30 AM EDT
Watch Carb Day IndyCar and Indy Lights coverage, from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.
May 22, 2015, 9:08 AM EDT
Still A LOT of stuff to watch for on Carb Day for the Verizon IndyCar Series, LIVE from 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.
May 22, 2015, 8:22 AM EDT
Carb Day at IMS: always one of the busiest days of the year.
May 21, 2015, 11:51 PM EDT
In a bizarre and truly 11th hour circumstance, Tristan Vautier appears set to replace Carlos Huertas in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.
May 21, 2015, 5:57 PM EDT
Oriol Servia says a connecting rod was removed that might have prevented the part from piercing the tub and critically injuring driver.
May 21, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT
American driver claims his second pole position in GP2 with a mesmerising display in Monaco on Thursday.
May 21, 2015, 4:32 PM EDT
The No. 5 beyond Indy 500 could be Daly, Wilson, or A.N. Other.
May 21, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
Daniel Abt confirmed to be remaining with his family team for season two of the Formula E series.
May 21, 2015, 3:47 PM EDT
Boston confirmed for 2016 and beyond in IndyCar.
May 21, 2015, 3:33 PM EDT
SPM takes four of the top five spots on the Indy Lights grid.
May 21, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
The McLaren driver lends his support to the proposed changes to F1 for 2017.
- Chip Ganassi lobbying for IndyCar schedule changes 0
- What to watch for: IndyCar, Indy Lights Carb Day (11 a.m. ET, NBCSN and Live Extra) 0
- IndyCar driver raises concern about design of wishbone that injured James Hinchcliffe in crash 3
- F1 Paddock Pass: Monaco Grand Prix (VIDEO) 0
- Hamilton tops quiet second Monaco GP practice 0
- Hamilton quickest in opening practice for Monaco GP 0
- James Hinchcliffe transferred out of ICU, full recovery expected 4