Tomorrow evening, when the Craftsman Truck Series field takes the green flag for the Smith’s Las Vegas 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, former Formula 1 driver Jacques Villeneuve will make his NASCAR debut in the No. 27 Toyota Tundra for Bill Davis Racing. Villeneuve is scheduled to run the remaining seven races of the truck season as well as the ARCA race at Talladega in an effort to prove to NASCAR that he is worthy of a Nextel Cup ride for the 2008 season.
Bill Davis, certainly inspired by Juan Pablo Montoya‘s relatively smooth transition to NASCAR from F1, heard Villeneuve was looking for a ride and jumped at the opportunity to offer him one.
“We had heard just like everyone else had that Jacques was interested in coming over to NASCAR,” Davis said. “We reached out to his management and they confirmed his interest. We came back and said they should look at the Truck Series. Our record in the Truck Series is pretty hard to beat. And it has just kind of gone on from there.”
The announcement was made on Aug. 24, and Villeneuve made his first appearance in a Bill Davis Tundra at Chicagoland Speedway when he tested with new teammate Mike Skinner. When asked about his new teammate, the rookie said, “He scared me by saying it would be like driving a bus. But it felt like a racecar.”
The 36-year-old driver was happy with his test at Chicagoland when he clocked times just two tenths off Skinner (31.00 seconds and 174.694 mph).
“It was better than I expected,” said Villeneuve after the test. “I knew it was a heavier car than I was used to, and it would bounce around and stuff like that, but it was actually closer to what I am used to as a racecar driver. I was happily surprised.”
Jacques was born in Canada but raised in Monaco, and racing was immediately in his blood. His father and uncle both raced in F1. Two years after his father passed away, he told his mother Joann he wanted to following in his father’s footsteps and race. Joann told him he could drive a kart if he managed good grades in his worst subject, math. His mother fulfilled her promise, and Villeneuve raced in a 100 cc machine, a 135 cc machine and a Formula 4 car all in the same day.
Shortly afterward, Jacques was enrolled at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School in Mont Tremblant, Quebec and received his diploma after being called the best student the instructor had ever seen. He made his debut in the Formula 3 series in 1989 and joined CART in 1994. Villeneuve went on to win the 1995 CART championship, the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and the 1997 F1 championship. He is one of only three to achieve all three; Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi are the other two.
Villeneuve impressed many, including himself during the test at Chicagoland Speedway. The question will be how he handles the truck during race conditions. Judging by his testing times and the teammates he’ll have for the remainder of the season, I expect to see him running up front for quite a few of the remaining seven races of the season. While his goal should be to just finish races and get a decent amount of track time, expect more than just finishing races out of Villeneuve.
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