ELKHART LAKE, Wis. — Jacques Villeneuve still wants to do a full season in NASCAR.
At this rate, it should only take a few more decades to get 30-plus races under his belt.
“I guess before I turn 80 I’ll manage to get a full season in,” Villeneuve joked Friday.
The 1997 Formula One champion and 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner has had only a handful of chances to race in NASCAR since his unsuccessful shot at making a full-time move from open-wheel racing a few years ago. He’s back in Nationwide this weekend, taking Brad Keselowski’s place in Penske Racing’s No. 22 car for Saturday afternoon’s race at Road America.
Villeneuve is a master of the scenic four-mile road course that winds through the tree-lined hills of central Wisconsin. Back in his Indy days, he won at the track in 1994 and ’95.
He finished 25th in last year’s Nationwide race at Road America, joking that he “brought down the average a lot.”
Sprint Cup series star Carl Edwards won that day, but Villeneuve had a huge impact.
He led a handful of laps and put on quite a show, using a series of breathtakingly aggressive moves to get in contention before an electrical cable disconnected and cost him a shot at the victory.
Villeneuve ran three more NASCAR races last year — two in Nationwide and one in Cup, a surprise appearance at the Brickyard 400 — and he figures his strong run at Road America helped him earn those chances.
“I’m sure running good last year helps,” Villeneuve said. “Any time you run well, it opens the door a little bit. I’ve been working on NASCAR for quite a few years now. And it’s slow progress, but it’s always a little progress. I just never give up and keep going.”
He’s scheduled to race for Penske in his hometown of Montreal later this season, but doesn’t have firm plans beyond that.
Villeneuve hasn’t had a full-time ride in any series since a split with his Formula One team in 2006. Asked what he has been up to recently, he mentions … ice racing in France?
He acknowledges that it’s tough to get back in the car and be competitive right away when he isn’t racing every week.
“It is challenging, and it puts a lot of pressure on me,” Villeneuve said. “If you do 30 races, you can afford to have a few bad ones. If you do just a couple of races, and they’re road courses and you’re a road course specialist … then you either win or finish in the top three and it’s normal, or it was a lost weekend. A lot weighs on those races, the future.”
Villeneuve certainly seemed to be driving with a sense of desperation at Road America last year, including a wild three-wide pass going into Turn 12 — a chaotic right-handed hairpin that comes after a high-speed straightaway.
That move certainly stood out to Nationwide driver Aric Almirola, who didn’t run at Road America last year and watched video of the race to prepare for this weekend.
“I might end up doing that, but it’d be totally by accident,” Almirola joked.
Max Papis, another veteran open-wheel driver trying to make a name in NASCAR with a good run Saturday, seemed only mildly impressed.
“It was very spectacular, but at the end of the day, he used up his car,” Papis said.
Villeneuve should be in an even better car this time around, getting a shot with Penske as Keselowski concentrates on his Cup duties in California.
“Coming back this year, it’s a little more exciting because I’m coming in with the Penske team,” Villeneuve said. “And I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for the whole organization since my Indy car days, Roger and his whole crew. And to now be part of the family, even if it’s just for one race weekend, is special. I’m stepping into some good shoes. Brad normally drives that car, and he does an amazing job.”
With the Cup Series racing at the road course Sunday in Sonoma, Calif., Edwards is the only regular who will be commuting to Road America to run Saturday.
Nationwide points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. says getting a break from racing against a bunch of established Cup stars is offset by the presence of road racing aces such as Villeneuve, Papis and Ron Fellows.
“They’re really good,” Stenhouse said. “They can take less equipment and run really well with it. And you’ve got some of them that are in really good equipment. So it’s just like having all the Cup guys out here for us.”