The next race is always the most important to any driver, but next weekend’s Daytona 500 carries additional significance to Jaques Villeneuve.
“The Daytona 500 is one of the three big races on the planet,” said Villeneuve, who won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and the 1997 Formula 1 championship.
“You have the Le Mans 24 Hours (he finished second there in 2008), the Indy 500 and Daytona, so that’s one reason for doing it.”
While drivers with Formula 1 experience have raced in the Daytona 500, no former F1 champion has competed in NASCAR’s biggest event of the season. Mario Andretti won the 1967 Daytona 500, but he didn’t claim his F1 championship until 1978.
There is no guarantee Villeneuve will make this year’s field. At least five cars are expected for the four spots to non-chartered teams, including Villeneuve’s Team Hezeberg.
The organization seeks to make its first Cup race at Daytona and run the six road courses this season with Loris Hezemans, the 2019 and ’21 EuroNASCAR Pro champion.
Villeneuve will battle at least Kaz Grala, Timmy Hill, JJ Yeley and Noah Gragson for a spot in the Daytona 500.
Villeneuve attempted to make the 2008 Daytona 500, but he crashed in his qualifying race and did not make the 500.
“It’s a little bit of a gamble when you have to qualify during the Duels,” Villeneuve said. “You could be the quickest car out there and still get caught out. When I tried to qualify years ago … the car was quick, but then I got caught up in a crash and then you don’t make the show. It’s very stressful.”
Villeneuve has four Cup starts. His best finish was 21st at Talladega in 2007. He has nine Xfinity starts. Villeneuve’s best finish in that series was third at Montreal (2010, 2012) and Road America (2011). He ran seven Camping World Truck Series in 2007. His best finish there was 14th at Atlanta.
The 50-year-old Villeneuve’s resume includes 11 F1 wins, including seven in his championship season and six in open-wheel, including the Indy 500.
His Indianapolis 500 victory came before Chase Elliott and Tyler Reddick were born. Villeneuve’s Formula 1 title in 1997 came before six current drivers were born, including William Byron, Cole Custer and Austin Cindric.
Even though Villeneuve is with one of the smaller teams in the series, that doesn’t diminish his excitement to race.
“After I won F1 and the Indy 500, I guess it could be a difficult decision to take because if you don’t make the show, you could damage your reputation,” he said. “You can damage the 30 years of hard work you put in your career. So there’s always a big risk involved in that aspect, but I just love racing.
“I’m passionate. I’m alive when I’m behind a steering wheel. The bigger the race, the better.”