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.
Jul 31, 2014, 4:59 PM EDT
Thursday’s NASCAR AMERICA lineup…
Jul 31, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
Malaysian FIA Formula E round moves from October to November to accommodate prime minister’s wishes.
Jul 31, 2014, 2:32 PM EDT
Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud look to make headway on Team Penske teammates, while Chip Ganassi Racing seeks a six-pack of Mid-Ohio wins this weekend.
Jul 31, 2014, 1:45 PM EDT
Anthony Richardson bills himself as the Bad British Commentator, and it definitely shows through here with his malapropisms and complete lack of understanding of the sport and world of NASCAR.
Jul 31, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
There may not be wholesale changes, based upon what NASCAR chairman Brian France said recently, but next year’s Sprint Cup schedule will look different. Based upon various sources and things we’ve heard and/or read, we’re going to chime in with our ideas and why we think that way.
Jul 31, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
With six qualifying races left, a total of 10 more spots remain to be clinched to fill out the expanded 16-driver playoff field for this year’s 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Jul 31, 2014, 11:54 AM EDT
Legendary NASCAR driver Mark Martin is returning to Roush Fenway Racing. But don’t expect Martin, 55, to get back behind the wheel any time soon.
Jul 31, 2014, 11:01 AM EDT
If you collect NASCAR memorabilia and someone approaches you in the coming days with a deal that seems too good to be true – especially if it involves merchandise related to either Dale Earnhardt Sr. or Dale Earnhardt Jr. – it probably is.
Jul 31, 2014, 10:50 AM EDT
Ferrari’s head of Engine and Electrics, Luca Marmorini, has left the team ahead of the second half of the season.
Jul 31, 2014, 9:59 AM EDT
NBCSN will present live coverage of the IndyCar Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio this Sunday at 3 p.m. ET, highlighting more than 30 hours of motorsports coverage across NBC and NBCSN this weekend.
Jul 31, 2014, 9:52 AM EDT
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s the case for the new design of the Toyota Camry for the 2015 Sprint Cup season.
Jul 31, 2014, 8:57 AM EDT
Ed Carpenter says he’d like to expand to two cars, but it remains to be seen if this can actually come to fruition.
Jul 30, 2014, 7:12 PM EDT
Personal care brand will serve as primary backer for Stenhouse in multiple 2015 races plus work in a season-long associate role.
Jul 30, 2014, 5:38 PM EDT
NASCAR AMERICA on Wednesday includes a Denny Hamlin interview, a recap of the Hamlin penalties and Dale Earnhardt Jr. new crew chief news.
Jul 30, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT
Nelson Piquet Jr. shows Kristen Kenney how to wakeboard, on the day after Piquet bagged a podium finish in Red Bull Global Rallycross at Charlotte.
Jul 30, 2014, 4:45 PM EDT
Coming up today: Full coverage of Brickyard penalties against Joe Gibbs Racing, including reaction from driver Denny Hamlin; interview with Eldora Truck Series winner Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
Jul 30, 2014, 4:30 PM EDT
Next year, Ives will have deal with an amount of fan and media attention that dwarfs anything he’s ever encountered in the sport.
Jul 30, 2014, 4:06 PM EDT
The livery notes going into this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at Toronto.
Jul 30, 2014, 2:39 PM EDT
Ives currently serves as crew chief for Nationwide Series points leader Chase Elliott and also worked as a race engineer for Jimmie Johnson during his run of five Sprint Cup titles from 2006-2010.
Jul 30, 2014, 1:14 PM EDT
In addition to talking about the meaning of Sunday’s win at Indy, Alan Gustafson touches on the penalties against fellow crew chief Darian Grubb and Joe Gibbs Racing.
- WATCH LIVE: NASCAR AMERICA at 5 p.m. ET 0
- IndyCar: A crucial weekend to commence at Mid-Ohio 0
- Mark Martin returning to Roush Fenway Racing in unique role 0
- NASCAR AMERICA: Wednesday Round-Up Includes Denny Hamlin Interview (VIDEO) 3
- Greg Ives to become crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. next season 12