Villeneuve impresses in NASCAR race debut
The anonymous plain white crash helmet confused some, but the trademark ‘baggy-fit’ race suit was a sign that Jacques Villeneuve was in town for his NASCAR race debut. On Saturday night he finished his first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Race, the ‘Smith’s Las Vegas 350’ in 21st position, one lap down on the race winner, Travis Kvapil. The end result said little about the facts behind his race, and the ultra-competitive Canadian’s smile was among the brightest as he climbed from his Bill Davis Racing Toyota Tundra having completed 145 laps of the 1.5 mile oval, located just 10 miles from the city’s famous ‘Strip’.
Having spent most of the week fulfilling media obligations, Villeneuve’s arrival at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on race-day morning was greeted by a frenzy of fan and media interest. Turning his attention to the on-track action, first practice was rained off, leaving the entire grid with just a single practice before the two-lap qualifying runs. Focused on the basics, by the end of practice Villeneuve had clocked the 21st fastest time before moving on to qualifying. To the surprise of the most hardened NASCAR experts, he put together two super-smooth fast laps, and qualified his No.
27 truck in 7th position, ahead of 29 other drivers.
The rolling start – his first for twelve years - cost Villeneuve badly as he slipped back to 14th place within a lap, from where he settled into a rhythm which saw him lapping as fast as the leaders.
Jostling for position on the high banking, and still new to the mass-drafting that plays so large a role across NASCAR’s various classes, Villeneuve was holding station as darkness set-in and the circuit floodlights went on.
Villeneuve maintained his fast pace through the first of the scheduled pit-stops, but his best efforts were negated on the 46th lap, as he hit the rear of a lapped driver, Brian Scott in his red truck, number 16. As is the normal in NASCAR, when Villeneuve saw the car in front start to slide in front of him, he was called to choose a place to pass on, and having committed himself, the other car reacted differently than expected, and the former F1 World Champion had nowhere else to go. The accident was caught from one of the three on-board cameras that featured heavily across nationwide TV coverage of the race. Forced into his first unplanned pit-stop, damage to the bodywork of the 36- year-old’s Toyota was heavy, and his team was unable to recover anything like the levels of downforce necessary to run as fast as the leaders. These problems cost Villeneuve two laps, although he did manage to recover one lap by the finish to claim a hard-fought 21st position.
After the race, a smiling Villeneuve commented “That was a lot of fun – the most fun I’ve had in a race car for many years. You can really slide the truck a lot, and it’s predictable, so the risk of crashing is less than I expected. When I hit the red car, it didn’t feel too bad, but I was surprised by how much damage it did. The guys did a great job, but it became difficult to lap anything like as fast as I’d been doing. In terms of clear objectives, to qualify and finish the race, we’ve done both, and I’ve spent the maximum amount of time in the car, learning a lot. I can’t wait for Talladega.”
Speaking trackside, team owner Bill Davis applauded Villeneuve’s debut performance, stating, “If anyone had any doubts about Jacques’ ability or enthusiasm for NASCAR, he’ll have addressed those doubts today. His qualifying pace was great, outperforming proven NASCAR race winners. Multiple pit-stops; full repairs in the pit-lane; with these races, there’s just so much that can happen, and he’s taken all of those punches here tonight, and he’s just remained very calm, and very focused on how he can learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. In spite of the huge media attention, Jacques has been able to focus 100% on the race car, and he’s been great to work with.”