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 31, 2015, 6:45 PM EDT
MotorSportsTalk’s Tony DiZinno reflects on the latest championship achieved by Scott Dixon and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team.
Aug 31, 2015, 5:35 PM EDT
Damien Power hits Sonoma to meet up with brother Will. Hilarity ensues.
Aug 31, 2015, 12:42 PM EDT
Rosberg is now a dad.
Aug 31, 2015, 12:27 PM EDT
Chaves first driver in nearly a decade to win both Indy 500, IndyCar top rookie honors in same season.
Aug 31, 2015, 11:59 AM EDT
IndyCar’s biggest underdog driver, team has their day at Sonoma.
Aug 31, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
The rest of the stories of note, to cap off the IndyCar season at Sonoma.
Aug 30, 2015, 10:39 PM EDT
It wasn’t the result, but the strength, of Oriol Servia in Justin Wilson’s car this weekend that shown through.
Aug 30, 2015, 10:34 PM EDT
A look at how the championship hopes for the three drivers ended in the GoPro GP of Sonoma.
Aug 30, 2015, 9:49 PM EDT
Dixon pulls off a shocker in Sonoma.
Aug 30, 2015, 9:17 PM EDT
Juan Pablo Montoya blamed the double-points awarded in the season finale for missing out on the IndyCar championship.
Aug 30, 2015, 8:47 PM EDT
Rahal endures disastrous finale at Sonoma, falls from second to fourth after 18th place finish.
Aug 30, 2015, 7:18 PM EDT
Dixon wins race, title in Sonoma in dramatic fashion.
Aug 30, 2015, 6:15 PM EDT
Will Power and Juan Montoya must fight from the back of the field following an accident.
Aug 30, 2015, 5:01 PM EDT
Robin Miller remembers Justin Wilson in this touching tribute.
Aug 30, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
Webber and the no. 17 Porsche crew claimed their first win at the 6 Hours of Nürburgring on Sunday.
Aug 30, 2015, 3:15 PM EDT
Chevrolet wins its fourth straight INDYCAR Manufacturer’s Championship.
Aug 30, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT
With heavy hearts, IndyCar moves ahead and will crown its champion this afternoon in Sonoma.
Aug 30, 2015, 2:45 PM EDT
Catch up on the Red Bull Global Rallycross season at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Aug 30, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
Maldonado keen to make up for his DNF in the Belgian Grand Prix at Monza.
Aug 30, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
What to watch for ahead of the 16th and final round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma from Sonoma Raceway.
- Dixon’s latest title a story of consistency, comeback, typical “Ice Man” cool 0
- Double points reverse Montoya’s IndyCar championship hopes (VIDEO) 16
- Scott Dixon captures Sonoma race win and 2015 IndyCar championship (VIDEO) 15
- Robin Miller pays tribute to Justin Wilson (VIDEO) 3
- WATCH LIVE: IndyCar’s championship decided in Sonoma at 1 p.m. PT, 4 ET on NBCSN 1
- What to watch for: IndyCar at Sonoma (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Live Extra) 0
- Porsche’s no. 17 car surges to maiden WEC victory in 6 Hours of Nürburgring 2