To witness the greatness that can be Jacques Villeneuve behind the wheel of a stock car, you need only to review video of his run three years ago in the inaugural Nationwide Series event at Road America. The former Formula One champion left television commentators dazzled with a three-wide pass of Carl Edwards in (appropriately) the Canada Corner, and later muscled past Brad Keselowski low in another turn to take the lead.
It was masterful stuff, a reminder of why during one period in the middle 1990s Villeneuve could have rightly laid claim to being the best race car driver on the planet. He was smooth, he was tactical, he was clean. Had an alternator wire not snapped and relegated him to a 25th-place finish that afternoon on the Wisconsin road course, he may well already have a NASCAR national-series victory added to his illustrious body of work.
As it is, his average finish over nine career Nationwide events is a sterling 10.6, and that takes into account a pair of results of 25th or worse. Villeneuve is 42 now, and he doesn't have a full-time ride anymore, and he hasn't won a race on a major circuit since his final F1 victory at Nurburgring 16 long years ago. But he's still more than capable, as he showed in his most recent NASCAR start a season ago at Montreal, where he led 43 laps before finishing third in a Nationwide race won by Justin Allgaier.
Of course, Villeneuve in that event was perhaps better known for something very different -- driving through leader Alex Tagliani with eight laps remaining, in the kind of move the Canadian star has lately become infamous for. His past five Nationwide starts have each included incidents in which Villeneuve was painted anywhere from aggressive to reckless, depending on the point of view. Wheel-hopping into eventual winner Boris Said. Overshooting the corner and T-boning Marcos Ambrose. Forcing it three-wide on a restart and taking out Max Papis and Brian Scott. Punting Tagliani.
And then, last year in Elkhart Lake, the capper -- spinning Danica Patrick while battling for fourth place. "Oh, come on," ESPN analyst Andy Petree scolded while watching it unfold. "Unbelievable," added colleague Rusty Wallace, himself one of the best ever on a road course. "? He just took her out." Afterward, words were exchanged on pit road between Villeneuve and Tony Eury Jr., Patrick's crew chief at the time.
Villeneuve is among the last of the great ringers, a road-course ace who can get an opportunity in a good car and drive it to the front. Not battling for a season-long championship, his only goal is to win. If he gets a touch too aggressive with someone racing for position? Big deal, he's only on the track against them two or three times a year. Those drivers who do have the longer view in mind can only grit their teeth and manage it the best they can -- or bump him on pit road afterward, as Scott did at Road America following their tangle there in 2011.
Well, it all promises to be a much bigger deal Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, when Villeneuve makes his first Sprint Cup Series start on a road course, driving for Phoenix Racing. His usual Nationwide ride, the No. 22 of Penske Racing, is being driven at Road America by AJ Allmendinger. Villeneuve has three previous premier-series races to his credit, but all were on ovals, and he wasn't a factor in any of them. That could very well change in Northern California wine country, given that the No. 51 car finished third there last season with Kurt Busch.
"We're taking back the same car," said Phoenix general manager Steve Barkdoll, although the vehicle will be outfitted with a 2013 body. "? We feel really good about our notes. On a road course, it's not as different as it might be on a Michigan or wherever. So we feel good about our notes. (Crew chief) Nick Harrison and the guys are working really hard to give Jacques everything he needs. Things still have to fall your way. Just like last year, things have to fall your way. We're just hoping for the best."
It's potentially a combustible combination, a headstrong freelancer like Villeneuve and an event that can feature all the gentility of a cage match. Rank and file NASCAR drivers have improved leaps and bounds in road racing, and with Wild Card berths to the Chase for the Sprint Cup potentially at stake, no one is backing off. That's how you end up with accidents at Sonoma featuring as many cars as a Big One at Talladega, or vehicles marked up like they just took the checkered at Martinsville, or Tony Stewart's machine dangling from a tire barrier. Don't let the vino, the pretty hillsides, or the scant two cautions in last year's race fool you -- this is no place for the meek.
Given his recent history, Villeneuve seems to fit right in. He wasn't on Phoenix Racing's original list of driver options for Sonoma until Barkdoll realized Allmendinger was running the Penske car at Road America rather than Villeneuve. The team's sponsor this weekend, Tag Heuer, once had an eyewear deal with Villeneuve, who had an off weekend from his side job analyzing F1 races for European television and agreed to take the ride. Now it's a matter of seeing how he matches up against Sprint Cup regulars -- in terms of both ability and aggression -- on a layout more befitting his skills.
"I'll race him the way I feel I need to race him according to how he races me. And if that doesn't work out right, we'll take it out behind the truck afterward and figure out who is right and who is wrong," Ryan Newman said. "... I'm not oblivious to the fact that he's been aggressive and made some questionable moves on the Nationwide side. Hopefully there's none of that, and hopefully there's no situation where there's disrespect amongst either side, us towards him or him towards us, and it's good, clean, hard racing. He's shown he's an aggressive driver, hard-racing driver, and he races for the win, and there's nothing wrong with that -- other than who it affects, how it affects them, and how they tolerate that."
It's not lost on Phoenix Racing that Villeneuve has been in his share of scrapes, and made his share of enemies, in recent years. Last week the former Indianapolis 500 winner visited the team's shop in Spartanburg, S.C., where part of the conversation involved taking care of equipment and managing the longer race. But then again, Villeneuve has proven he knows how to get to the front, and that's where Phoenix wants to be.
"He understands that he's here in our series, and it's a longer race than he's used to in those Nationwide races," Barkdoll said. "We have to be there at the end in order to have a chance to win. I think part of his aggression is just because he knows he belongs up front, and that's one reason we're putting him in the car. If we can put him there, hopefully he can stay there."
Much of this hinges on whether the No. 51 car is once again strong enough to hang with the leaders, and even give Villeneuve the opportunity to replicate the near-miracle run Busch engineered last season. If so, it's a matter of which Villeneuve emerges -- the one who drives by people, or through them? If there's a perfect scenario, it's that the higher level of competition and a more technical layout bring out the best in one of the greatest drivers of his generation, and Sunday at Sonoma seems a little like 2010 at Road America all over again.
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