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 17, 2015, 9:16 PM EDT
Ricky Taylor, Bill Auberlen secure pole positions for Round 3 of TUDOR Championship season in Long Beach.
Apr 17, 2015, 9:00 PM EDT
Some good banter between Simon Pagenaud and Will Power occurs during post-practice press conference, as the two laugh off their contact here last year.
Apr 17, 2015, 7:37 PM EDT
Power leads second practice in Long Beach.
Apr 17, 2015, 7:00 PM EDT
Five in a row for the McLaren junior driver as he starts the 2015 season in style.
Apr 17, 2015, 6:00 PM EDT
Ferrari’s long run pace suggests that Mercedes may not have it all its own way on Sunday.
Apr 17, 2015, 5:41 PM EDT
More from INDYCAR has been released regarding aero kit updates.
Apr 17, 2015, 4:45 PM EDT
Red Bull Global Rallycross rolls out a series of announcements for media day, Thursday in Long Beach.
Apr 17, 2015, 4:24 PM EDT
Scott Dixon on top in opening practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series at Long Beach.
Apr 17, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
A mixed day for both Carlos Sainz Jr and Max Verstappen during practice for the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Apr 17, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT
Williams usually reserves its pace for Saturday, but Valtteri Bottas bucked the trend in Bahrain on Friday.
Apr 17, 2015, 2:36 PM EDT
Briton pleased with Mercedes work following practice for the Bahrain Grand Prix on Friday.
Apr 17, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
He’s not the race defending champion, but as the most recent Long Beach winner still in the IndyCar field, Takuma Sato is indeed one to watch this weekend.
Apr 17, 2015, 1:22 PM EDT
A busy night for the stewards in Bahrain due to two incidents at the end of FP2 on Friday.
Apr 17, 2015, 12:32 PM EDT
Rocky Moran Jr. to make IndyCar debut this weekend with Dale Coyne Racing in a last-minute fill-in role for Carlos Huertas.
Apr 17, 2015, 12:31 PM EDT
Normal service is resumed in FP2 as Mercedes dominates proceedings, but Ferrari proves that it could be in the running for the race win on race day.
Apr 17, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT
Picking a winner from the Team Penske quartet is always a challenge, but Simon Pagenaud has his best shot yet to break through this weekend.
Apr 17, 2015, 11:00 AM EDT
Max Chilton reflects on his new dual role with Carlin in Indy Lights, and a bit on his Nissan LMP1 role as well.
Apr 17, 2015, 10:45 AM EDT
Can Mercedes strike back in FP2? Or will Ferrari continue to lead the way in Bahrain?
Apr 17, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
Finnish driver delighted with how things are going at Maranello in 2015, but says his future is down to the team.
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