Jun 21, 2013, 7:22 PM EST
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.
Mar 2, 2015, 5:16 PM EST
Jam-packed schedule for inaugural GP of NOLA weekend.
Mar 2, 2015, 3:00 PM EST
Toyota Racing’s trio of Davidson, Buemi and Nakajima tour Tokyo.
Mar 2, 2015, 2:00 PM EST
RHR’s image on Indianapolis 500 tickets to be unveiled on Thursday.
Mar 2, 2015, 1:00 PM EST
With 114 cars total and a manufacturer overload, things look promising for Pirelli World Challenge heading into 2015.
Mar 2, 2015, 11:00 AM EST
F1 and IndyCar kick off; NHRA, sports cars and ladder series also have a busy month of March ahead.
Mar 2, 2015, 9:30 AM EST
Mercedes leads in pace, and lap count as F1 preseason testing is in the books for 2015.
Mar 2, 2015, 8:59 AM EST
Mick Schumacher to advance from karting into cars this season.
Mar 2, 2015, 8:21 AM EST
With potential Indy Lights success there for the taking, Max Chilton instead opts for the LMP1 route with Nissan.
Mar 2, 2015, 7:45 AM EST
Max Chilton and Alex Buncombe round out the Nissan LMP1 lineup; Chilton full season and Buncombe at Le Mans.
Mar 2, 2015, 7:34 AM EST
Red Bull takes off the camo, comes back in color.
Mar 1, 2015, 5:00 PM EST
Here’s the final recap from the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya as pre-season testing comes to a close.
Mar 1, 2015, 3:30 PM EST
Team principal Maurizio Arrivabene calls for “concentration and discipline” at Maranello in the lead-up to the start of the 2015 season.
Mar 1, 2015, 3:00 PM EST
The Team Penske pilot turns 34 years old today.
Mar 1, 2015, 2:30 PM EST
Maldonado is still able to find the positives out of his final test run before the beginning of the 2015 season in Australia on March 15.
Mar 1, 2015, 2:00 PM EST
Should Mercedes drop the ball in 2015, Williams could be the team to pick up the pieces and snatch a race win.
Mar 1, 2015, 1:30 PM EST
17-year-old will become the youngest driver in the history of F1 to start a race in Australia.
James Courtney wins season-opening V8 Supercars feature in Adelaide; ex-NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose 12th
Mar 1, 2015, 1:00 PM EST
Ambrose cracks Top 10 on feature grid, but fuel strategy hinders an otherwise decent run for him.
Mar 1, 2015, 12:45 PM EST
German driver posted the fastest time of winter testing in Barcelona on Friday.
Mar 1, 2015, 12:30 PM EST
With the ban on motorsport in Switzerland being lifted, the door has been opened to an ePrix in Geneva.
Mar 1, 2015, 12:00 PM EST
Attention now turns to the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 15.
- F1, IndyCar seasons finally premiere in 2015’s version of March madness 0
- F1: Barcelona second test wrap, and 2015 test times cumulative roundup 0
- Michael Schumacher’s son Mick to race in ADAC F4 championship this season 3
- Barcelona F1 2nd Test Paddock Notebook – Sunday 1
- F1 pre-season testing ends with Bottas fastest for Williams 1
- Lewis Hamilton explains decision to reject #1 for 2015 1
- Barcelona F1 2nd Test Paddock Notebook – Saturday 0