Jacques Villeneuve tried 14 years ago to race the Daytona 500 to add to his legendary racing resume. He failed to make the pitch and continued his career.
Now he’s heading back to Daytona International Speedway to try his luck. The Canadian will be looking to qualify for the biggest race on the NASCAR calendar next week for a team trying to fight their way to the top of stock car racing.
Why would a 50-year-old former Formula 1 champion and Indianapolis 500 winner care?
“The Daytona 500 is one of the big three races on the planet,” Villeneuve said. “You have the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Indy 500 and Daytona, so that’s one of the reasons to do it. And you know, you have a good race and then you end up doing a few more?
Villeneuve won the Indy 500 in 1995 and two years later was F1 champion. He spent 11 seasons at the highest level of motorsport. When he lost his F1 seat at the end of 2006, he simply looked for new racing opportunities.
His journey took him to Talladega Superspeedway for a 21st-place finish in his 2007 NASCAR debut, five Xfinity Series races at the Montreal road course named after his late father, and seven Truck Series races. Villeneuve has raced in a handful of NASCAR series, in supercars, in Formula E and finally two seasons in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series.
Now he’s trying to help the Hezeberg team kick off their program and hopes to qualify for his first Cup race since 2013 in Sonoma. The Hezberg Team is a new collaboration between former sports car driver Toine Hezemans, Dutch businessman Ernst Berg and Reaume Brothers Racing.
The team is planning a partial calendar this season which focuses on the six road races on the 2022 Cup calendar. is not allowed to race at Daytona.
And that’s where Villeneuve, who has four Cup races in his 20 starts in the NASCAR National Series, came into the picture. He drives for the team in Europe alongside the young Hezemans and has agreed to participate in the Daytona 500 effort.
“I never stopped running. I never stopped wanting to race in NASCAR, that’s why I raced a bit in Europe,” he said. “But now with the European team, which is coming in with a Heisenberg, we got in touch, so they wanted the general experience. Not everyone wants to drive for an unqualified car. It’s a tough business and it’s a small team, but there’s a good chance we’ll put on a show.
The #27 Ford will be among six expected entries trying to claim one of four open spots in the 40-car field. Villeneuve can put on a show either during the time trials on Wednesday evening or during the qualifying races on Thursday evening. He said the situation reminded him of the start of his Formula 3 career in Italy and under immense pressure to make the field.
“If you don’t do Daytona, after winning F1 and Indy 500, I guess it might be a bit difficult,” he said. “If you don’t do the show, you’re hurting yourself. Basically, you’re damaging your reputation, you can damage the 30 years of hard work you’ve put into your career. So there is always a big risk associated with this aspect.
“But I love racing. I’m passionate. I’m alive when I’m behind the wheel and the bigger the race the better.
He accepts the pressure, turning the experience into a great family adventure. Villeneuve and his wife will be pulling their two teenage children out of school to travel to Daytona, along with their two-week-old newborn.
“It’s going to be quite a weekend, an important weekend,” he said. “If we can put on a show in qualifying, it will be a very exciting time.”
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