COMMENTARY | He's baaaaack!
Yes, the man many NASCAR fans love to hate, Jacques Villeneuve, is back in the house this weekend, competing for James Finch in the 51 car in the Cup race at Sonoma.
Just to refresh your memory, this is the guy who comes into the road course races on NASCAR's schedule like a bull in a china shop, storming his way to the front and not worrying too much about who is in his way.
After he punted NASCAR media darling Danica Patrick near the end of the 2012 Nationwide race at Road America, JV nonchalantly said afterward that the contact, "had nothing to do with me. I really don't care."
That's what I call an attitude, and you know what? I love it.
I'm a fan of drivers who will do what's necessary to win, even if it's not pretty. There was once a guy like that in NASCAR, his first name was Dale and his last name was Earnhardt. Many NASCAR fans will praise Dale's aggressive style, but say that Jacques is a different story.
I guess the same standards don't apply to everyone.
Drivers cold to Villeneuve
Asked about racing against Villeneuve this Sunday in the wake of last year's incident, Danica Patrick was not too enthusiastic or forgiving of her rival and fellow Indycar alum.
"I saw him in the rookie meeting and I was like, 'Oh, hey'. And that was about it," she said Friday at Sonoma. "You know, after the things that have happened, it's hard to have a lot of respect for somebody like that. I respect what he's done in his career; but the way that he treats other drivers on the track, I can't. So, that's all there is to say."
She was just part of a long line of Villeneuve bashers on Friday.
Tony Stewart alluded to a lack of 'etiquette' from drivers like JV.
"The etiquette that we have in this series is different than the series they come from so it creates some of those problems, just makes it a little more difficult," Stewart said. "You do have to be aware of who they are and that they are liable to do things just a little different way than what we are used to week in and week out."
Next in the queue, 5-time Jimmie Johnson, who said: "Cautions might go up a little bit based on his Nationwide experience from what I've seen."
And Clint Bowyer had perhaps the harshest critique of JV:
"Train wreck, extremely fast train, but usually ends up derailed somehow," he opined. "There has to be a level of respect and it doesn't matter if you're racing for points throughout the season, or just show up and race against the peers of one of the premier levels of all of motorsports. If that respect is not there, you're not going to come in and beat and bang on this bunch for long and you're probably going to be frustrated by the end of the day. That's not a threat or anything else. We've all seen what will happen in those Nationwide races and it was too bad because there seemed to be one common denominator in a lot of the cautions that came out."
"What you have to try to avoid is the stupid moves like the one I did in Elkhart Lake two years ago. That was stupid and I took a couple of guys out. That happens to everyone. That one cost a lot. And last year I ran into Danica and that was the worst thing you can do in racing. It doesn't matter ultimately how or why it happened, that's enough to create this image and now I am stuck with it," Villeneuve said. "The perception is that I've been dirty and a dangerous driver. I know the reputation that I have and I think it's been blown out of proportion. That's life. You have to live with it. I've been taken out a lot more often than when I took people out. I was taken out when I was on the lead lap, as well, and that seemed acceptable. I'm not here to take people out. I'm not here to get anybody angry, either. So hopefully race hard but clean."
My take: Jacques is good for NASCAR
While I recognize that Villeneuve is often disrespectful on track, that doesn't make me like him less. I am surprised by how many people forgot that their own drivers do the same thing on a regular basis.
Has Tony Stewart never gotten heated on track and taken out a rival as he marched to the front? What about Clint Bowyer? Danica Patrick? Fill in the blank?
They've all done it and they know it. Especially at a track like Sonoma, where racing is so tight and passing locations are hard to come by, you do what you have to do to get up front and aim for the win.
Every single driver that will race Sunday has pushed and been pushed a hundred times on the road courses (and the ovals, too, for that matter) where they've raced, and they know it. To single out Jacques because of a few incidents in very unfair.
My overall thinking on this is: Since when is being an aggressive driver a bad thing? It used to be celebrated in the days of Big E. If I'm faster, get out of the way or I'll make you get out of the way was the mentality (just ask Terry Labonte and others who felt Earnhardt's wrath over the years).
Good for the sport if JV wins
I would love to see Villeneuve, who already has a Formula 1 title and Indy 500 win to his credit, win on Sunday at Sonoma, and here's why:
-- It would be good publicity for the sport, because it's something different than the usual circle of winners and would gain NASCAR worldwide headlines due to Jacques' popularity around the globe from his Formula 1 days. And as the saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity.
-- It would be a shot in the arm for James Finch's #51 Phoenix Racing team, which is rumored to be shutting down completely in a month or so. This "little team that could," which has done pretty well in 2013 despite no budget, might be able to draw some money in to help it keep running if they show they're able to get top talent like Villeneuve in their car and shock the NASCAR world by winning a race.
-- The amount of hate that would be directed toward JV in the wake of a victory would be extreme and most likely very hilarious. People really don't like this dude, thinking of him as a stereotypical rude French Canadian. The ensuing discussion alone makes a JV win something to root for.
Just so we're clear, I fully recognize that the 51 car is not very likely to get to Victory Lane, both because of the level of equipment Villeneuve will drive isn't up to snuff with the competition and because so many drivers want to put him into the wall based on his past actions.
But that can't keep me from hoping it happens. I'd love to see him do it, and despite all the hate that is thrown at Villeneuve, I think a lot of folks are with me on that, and would even like to see him compete more regularly in the Cup and Nationwide series to spice things up.
Bonne chance, Jacques.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Jacques Villeneuve
- Danica Patrick