ELKHART LAKE, Wis. — Showing glimpses of the talent that made his father a three-time Formula One champion gave Nelson Piquet Jr. the chance to race all over the world on some of the biggest stages in the sport. Now he wants to make it in NASCAR.
And he’s hoping Saturday’s Nationwide Series victory at Road America will help him catch the eye of a team owner willing to give his stock car racing career a boost.
“I think the best thing that could come out of this was to show team owners and bosses that I’m capable of doing it, if I just get the right car and the right team,” Piquet said.
The win makes Piquet the first Brazilian to win a race in NASCAR’s national touring series.
Michael McDowell was second, followed by Ron Fellows, Max Papis and Sam Hornish Jr.
Things didn’t work out so well for Danica Patrick after she ran with the leaders almost all afternoon.
Jacques Villeneuve collided with Patrick on the last lap as the two drivers were battling for a top-five finish, causing Patrick’s car to spin out. Villeneuve finished sixth, while Patrick recovered and finished 12th.
“Where Villeneuve goes, there tends to be cars that have problems, whether it’s his fault or the other car’s fault or (just) stock car racing at the end of the race,” Patrick said. “You all can make a decision for yourself, what you think happened there.”
Villeneuve, the 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1997 Formula One champion, dominated the middle stages of the race but spun out on lap 33 and lost several positions. He had words with a member of Patrick’s crew on pit road after the race.
“We were racing hard, and I wasn’t even fighting with Danica, I was fighting with Max Papis,” Villeneuve said in a radio interview. “And just before the braking (zone), I guess he was wanting to cross over and go to the inside of Danica. And he probably didn’t know I was there so he pushed me into the grass, and you don’t slow down that much in the grass. So by the time I was on the racetrack again, I was going a little bit slower than Danica. That’s all.”
Patrick ran well all day and even momentarily led the race when she passed Miguel Paludo on lap 21, only to give it back a few seconds later when she slightly overshot a turn and got passed. Patrick also shot up to second place on a late restart but couldn’t hold the spot, fading slightly before getting involved in the incident with Villeneuve.
“It just would have been good to get a good result,” Patrick said. “People sort of say I don’t get good results, but today I ran well. I feel like lately we’ve been running much better but we haven’t sort of finished the deal and gotten the result.”
Meanwhile, Piquet’s extensive road racing experience paid off at the four-mile, 14-turn road course that winds through the hills of central Wisconsin.
But as much as he enjoyed winning, he knows he still has to prove he can consistently run well on oval tracks — something he’s trying to do in the Trucks Series, where he is sixth in the points standings.
“I’m going to be here for a long time, hopefully,” Piquet said.
And while NASCAR might not be a big deal back in Brazil, Piquet’s success already was having a measurable effect. After he won pole position for the race during Saturday morning’s qualifying, Piquet said fans in Brazil used social media to pressure a Brazilian television network to take a soccer game off the air and show the NASCAR race live.
“Hopefully, in a few years, I’ll be opening a path for all those Brazilian fans who mostly go to Europe, they can come to America too,” Piquet said.
And Piquet got a phone call from his famous father right after the race.
“He was laughing,” Piquet said. “I don’t know if he had a beer or not. But he was very, very excited.”
McDowell said he couldn’t chase down Piquet at the end.
“His car was fast,” McDowell said. “I don’t know if we would have had anything for him if we could have just stayed with him on that restart.”
The second-place finish was another good run at Road America for McDowell, who lost the lead in the late stages of last year’s race.
“I can tell you this: If I get to do this five more times, I’m going to win one of these things,” McDowell said.