Jacques Villeneuve may be a respected driver in the overall realm of motorsports. After all, in the 1990s he claimed CART and F1 championships, in addition to winning the Indianapolis 500. Not many racers can make that claim. But when it comes to NASCAR, Villeneuve may find respect a little hard to come by. A lot of that has to do with Villeneuve’s performance in recent road course races at the NASCAR Nationwide Series level.
In road course events in that series last year, Villeneuve drove the No. 22 for Penske Racing. He caught the ire of several series regular during those races after being involved in multiple incidents that series regulars viewed as Villeneuve’s fault.
Both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series are road course racing this weekend, but at different tracks. The Sprint Cup Series races Sunday in Sonoma (Calif.) at Sonoma Racway, while the Nationwide Series takes on Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., for a Saturday race.
Villeneuve is in Sonoma, preparing to race the No. 51 Chevrolet entry fielded by the James Finch-owned Phoenix Racing. While most of his recent NASCAR road racing experience has come in the Nationwide Series, this weekend, Villeneuve will go Sprint Cup racing.
As far as attitudes go, it looks like his not-so-positive NASCAR reputation as followed him to Sonoma. Defending race winner Clint Bowyer even went so far as to refer to Villeneuve as a train wreck when asked about him during a press conference earlier this weekend at Sonoma.
“Train wreck, extremely fast train, but usually ends up derailed somehow,” Bower said in his assessment of Villeneuve. “I don’t mean that roust. 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.”
Throughout race weekend press conferences in Sonoma with various drivers, Villeneuve was a popular topic among reporters, so several drivers were asked about racing with Villeneuve this weekend.
Sprint Cup Series points leader and series five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, when asked about racing Villeneuve, didn’t seem to realize that Villeneuve would be among the drivers in Sunday’s race, but once he was told, his comments regarding racing Villeneuve weren’t exactly glowing.
“I didn’t know that but, yeah, cautions might go up a little bit based on his Nationwide experience from what I’ve seen,” Johnson said.
Ryan Newman even went so far as to issue somewhat of a warning.
“I’ll race him the way I feel I need to race him according to how he races me,” Newman said. “And if that doesn’t work out right, we’ll take it out behind the truck afterwards and figure out who is right and who is wrong.”
Former F1 driver turned NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular Juan Pablo Montoya, though, was a little more understanding of Villeneuve. Perhaps that’s in part to their history as former rivals in other forms of racing.
“(Drivers like Villeneuve) are hired to come here to win the race,” Montoya said. “They’re not hired to let someone by. He’ll race fair. I don’t think he’s a guy who will wreck on purpose. Same way I am. If you push my buttons, I push back. That’s the way we are. . . . I think he can do a good job,” Montoya said. “He’s a racer and he wants to win. He’ll do whatever it takes to win. You learn when you come to NASCAR full-time there are times to go and times to mellow. In F1 if you mellow, you go home.”
Montoya even offered help to Villeneuve early in the weekend, talking to Villeneuve about how to get around the track in a stock car. It looks like Villeneuve may actually have at least one friend, after all.
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– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR
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