NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s the Call? Jacques Villeneuve – Boom Or Bust?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch’s What’s the Call? Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s big controversies. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: On Friday, Bill Davis Racing announced Canadian Jacques Villeneuve will drive for the team in the Craftsman Truck Series, with an eye towards bringing the former Formula 1 star into Cup full-time by February, 2008. Can Villeneuve follow in Juan Pablo Montoya‘s footsteps and succeed in Nextel Cup – or will the open wheeler be destined for failure in his transition to American stock car racing?

Villeneuve Will Succeed

In 2008, Villeneuve is going to bring to the No. 36 Toyota what Jeremy Mayfield couldn’t… success. That’s not meant to be a stab at Mayfield, but Villeneuve simply has both the talent and focus needed to bring something new to the team next year.

Let’s not forget, Villeneuve is a man who has achieved worldwide acclaim throughout his racing past. During 18 years of competition, he’s nailed down two major series championships, scoring 10 top-10 and six top-five positions in the final points standings of such series as CART (now Champ Car) and F1. The peak of Villeneuve’s success came in the latter series, although most Americans know him for winning CART’s last Indy 500 in 1995 or as the famous son of the late racing star Gilles Villeneuve.

But that’s not the only place in which Villeneuve has experienced success. After finishing sixth in points in the Italian Formula 3 series in 1991, he moved to Japan and finished second in the Japanese Formula 3 series the following year. In 1993, he was third after a yearlong jump to Toyota Atlantic cars, moving up again the next year to finish sixth in the former CART series without even racing a full season. He followed that up in 1995 by winning his first and only CART championship, a perfect match to go along with his lone Indy 500 win that same year. In 1996, Villeneuve came in second as a rookie in F1, even after missing a race; in 1997, he took it one step further and came home with that year’s title. Villeneuve’s had one top-five and three top-10 points finishes since then, remaining in F1 until the middle of last year. Clearly, this is a man who has passed the test in all different types of racecars all over the world.

Of course, none of those series had “stock car” attached to their name. But while the open-wheel lightweights Villeneuve is used to may weigh less than half of a Nextel Cup car, that doesn’t mean he won’t figure out his new series and be successful over time. Just take a look at recent history; in the past 15 years or so, there have been many open-wheel converts who crossed over into NASCAR and wowed the fans; Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Robby Gordon and Casey Mears are among those who come to mind.

The most recent of these drivers, love him or hate him, is Juan Pablo Montoya. Most fans love to hate him, but he’s currently 18th in the Nextel Cup standings and is leading the Rookie points… not bad for a freshman with limited stock car experience. A man with a very similar background as Villeneuve, Montoya’s very first stock car race last year, the fall ARCA race at Talladega, absolutely blew his critics – and me – away after he scored a fourth-place finish. To this day, I can still remember the excitement I felt watching him cross the finish line from the pits… absolutely awesome. I believe Villeneuve will have similar, if not better, success with his transition into NASCAR – like Montoya, he’s an F1 champ and he’s also shown a wider range of diversity in several different racing series through the years.

Some might say that Villeneuve’s days of winning have been over for a while, but I think they’re wrong. A pattern I noticed with Villeneuve is that he seems to perform best right after switching types of racing or race teams. His best years in F1, for example, were 1996 and 1997 – his very first years on the circuit. It’s almost like he gets bored and needs a different type of challenge to maintain his winning momentum.

Well, the move to NASCAR should be a big enough change to keep Villeneuve busy for quite sometime. The schedule will keep him moving and shaking more than ever before; as he gets up to speed, Villeneuve will be getting his feet wet through seven Truck Series races this year, beginning with Las Vegas in September. It’s a wise choice to start him there rather than the Busch Series; the trucks bear the closest resemblance to the CoT, which is what he will be racing full-time in 2008.

That initial experience will likely bode well for the Canadian as he looks to ease his transition. And after testing a truck at Chicagoland Speedway on Monday, Villeneuve is already showing confidence about his move to stock cars. His times were not that far off teammate Mike Skinner, and he’s comfortable immediately in a completely different type of vehicle than any he’s ever raced. It’s that kind of confidence, along with his natural talent, that I believe will fuel his success over here.

While I won’t be in Las Vegas for Villeneuve’s first Truck Series race, I will be at Talladega for his first ARCA event – and once again, I’m expecting to see the same exciting finish from the pits that I saw with Montoya last year. Frankly, I wouldn’t expect anything less from a driver primed and ready to be the next NASCAR star in the making. – Kathy Grindle

Villeneuve Should Stick To Singing

So another one of them there dang ‘feriners is comin’ down South, ready to rub fenders with the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the rest of them good ol’ boys? Well daggum it, I’mma tell ya right now, ain’t no way, no how, that he’s gonna be worth a flip out there.

Slow down. No, I don’t have a problem with drivers from other countries competing in NASCAR. Heck, 80% of the guys racing today aren’t even from the South; they’re from far-flung places like California, Washington and Indiana. And with the announcement of Villeneuve testing this week for Bill Davis Racing, it appears as if yet another successful open-wheel competitor will be making the transition to that left-turn only circuit. But while expectations are high for the 1995 CART and 1997 F1 World Champion, I’m thinking that you shouldn’t expect a whole lot out of him for 2008 – at least when it comes to something with a roof and four wheels.

There’s no question a solid weight of expectations has been established here; Montoya has set the bar pretty high for his fellow go-kart racers. Forget about that bump-and-run on Scott Pruett in Mexico City (although I know it’s hard) – that was a race he was going to win regardless. He’s already won in the Busch Series, as well as Cup (getting a fuel-mileage win in Sonoma this June). He’s actually starting to figure out these ovals now, too, after half a season of struggling through the shorter tracks.

On the surface, that would seem to bold well for Villeneuve, a man with similar experiences as Montoya. However, JPM has an advantage that JV does not – decent racecars.

Let’s understand the breadth of the difference. Villeneuve will likely be driving the No. 36 machine next season, recently vacated via mutual agreement by Mayfield. Now, Mayfield is a proven Cup winner; but out of the whopping 10 events he’s qualified for this year, his best finishes so far have been a 23rd at Martinsville and 25th at Lowe’s Motor Speedway (a race Mayfield didn’t even finish). And let’s face facts; while everyone loves Bill Davis and he is well respected in the garage area, his teams really haven’t had a whole lot to crow about since 2002.

Montoya got a jump on the learning curve by running some ARCA races, a few Busch races and a Cup event before going full-time in 2007. Villeneuve, meanwhile, will simply run the remaining Truck schedule starting at Las Vegas. That’s fine; the trucks are essentially a Car of Tomorrow prototype, only a lot prettier. But in the end, the Canadian will have very little testing time at tracks that the Cup Series will actually race at, and even less seat time next year due to the fact that the No. 36 currently sits mired in 44th in owner points.

This is important because the No. 36 car sucks. Really, really bad.

That is not to disparage the guys who work at BDR; the Toyota effort has been a struggle this year across the board. However, under the current qualifying and testing rules, the No. 36 that Villeneuve would drive for simply won’t be making the cut for a lot of races next year, just because it doesn’t have the right chassis and horsepower underneath it. With the likely addition of Gibbs racing to the Toyota fold, all teams are expected to run much more competitively than they are now. Will that translate to the No. 36 car suddenly waking up and making races right away, though? Hard to tell, but the Magic 8-ball concedes, “All Signs Point To No.”

Again, Villeneuve isn’t necessarily the weak link here in the equation; it’s the racecars that he will be saddled with, as well as an antiquated qualifying format. Even if the format is changed, he will be competing against other Toyota teams such as those from Michael Waltrip Racing, the two Red Bull entries (which may become three) and Ray Evernham’s No. 10 Dodge driven by Scott Riggs to secure his spot. Factor in other established operations struggling to make the show week to week, such as Morgan-McClure Motorsports, and the odds of making races just got that much slimmer.

Villeneuve may also have a couple of other things to contend with; namely, fellow open wheelers. Sam Hornish Jr. and ex-Toro Rosso F1 pilot Scott Speed are among those rumored to a full-time Cup seat next year. Hornish is under consideration as a third entry for Roger Penske, and Speed has found favor with Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz. Speed could potentially drive a third entry for Red Bull should they opt to expand their current cramped operations.

Bottom line, any way you slice it, Villeneuve has a tough road to hoe if he decides to drive South and race stock cars. It’s not for lack of talent or desire. Instead, he will find that, much like his days of driving for BAR-Honda or Sauber in F1, the speed just isn’t going to be there in the car he’ll be driving, and there’s a heck of a lot more than 18 cars showing up to make the show each weekend – try 47 to 49.

Right now, that’s no pressure; but it’s only a matter of time. But regardless of whose name is on the roof, the most likely place you’ll see the No. 36 car next year will be on the trailer – with Villeneuve scratching his head over what went wrong. – Vito Pugliese

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