A win in NASCAR would be huge for former Formula One driving champion Jacques Villeneuve. To score it at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the Montreal track named for his legendary father, would be beyond huge.
Villeneuve gets that chance again Sunday in the NAPA Auto Parts 200 Nationwide Series race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. This will be his third straight run in the Nationwide event in Montreal, and the road-course expert figures to have a decent shot at victory in the Braun Racing No. 32 Toyota.
Villeneuve has started four races in Nationwide cars, and his career-best finish – fourth – was scored last year at the Montreal course.
A victory Sunday would not be his first in Montreal. In 1993, he won in the North American Toyota Atlantic Series at the track. A Nationwide win, however, would be much more meaningful.
“We are coming in aggressively,” Villeneuve said. “It’s the third year I’ve raced with the Braun team, and with the Dollar General car, it’s been four races, five races. So we are starting to work well together, and we have really worked hard on the road course program car-wise, and we also are bringing different brakes for Montréal.
“It’s a very demanding track, and I’m a late braker. I’m a heavy braker, which is where I make most of my time at Elkhart Lake, and even at the Glen, actually.
“So we are pulling out all the stops for Montreal so we can compete. The first year when it was the heavy rain, we led the lap, and then I crashed under a caution. That was a little bit annoying. And we were quite competitive last year. So I think we are coming this year to try and win it.”
Very few drivers can match Villeneuve’s resume. He won the F1 title in 1997 after winning the Indianapolis 500 and the CART championship in 1995. Only two other drivers – all-time greats Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi – can make those claims.
Additionally, Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya are the only drivers who have competed in the Indianapolis 500, the Brickyard 400 and the United States Grand Prix – all at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Villeneuve hopes to return to F1 next season with his own team. An organizational decision on that plan is expected by the end of this month. Meanwhile, he is concentrating on success at Montreal.
“There’s a race this weekend which is really important,” Villeneuve said. “We have put a lot of effort into it car-wise, brakes, everything. We will come here wanting to win.
“We are not a team that also has a big Cup effort, so that makes it a little bit harder on us. But, you know, with the road course experience, I am trying to compensate, and it’s been working with well so far, like at Elkhart Lake where we were quite competitive.”
Villeneuve has explored a broader schedule in NASCAR but hasn’t put together the right opportunities.
“I would be happy to race every weekend,” he said. “That would be great. I love driving, I love racing, and that’s why I enjoy the racing that I’ve done in NASCAR. That’s why I enjoy them so much – all of the focus is purely behind the wheel, and you can really, even when your setup is not perfect, you can find a way to drive beyond it to figure a way to still make the car go quick. It's tough during a whole race, but for qualifying, for some laps, you can find a way to muscle your way through and that makes it a lot of fun.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.