The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Jacques Villeneuve brings tarnished reputation back to NASCAR at Sonoma

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SONOMA, Calif. - He's a former Formula One world champion, an Indianapolis 500 winner. But those accomplishments mean very little when Jacques Villeneuve races in NASCAR.

His sparkling resume has been shredded by nine eventful Nationwide races that have made Villeneuve the punch line of many jokes as he returned to competition this weekend at Sonoma Raceway.

"Train wreck," defending race winner Clint Bowyer said Friday. "Extremely fast train, but usually ends up derailed, somehow. We've all seen what happened in those Nationwide races and it was too bad because it seemed to be one common denominator in a lot of the cautions."

Villeneuve believes the reputation is unfair and inaccurate.

Yes, he made a mistake when he unsuccessfully tried to go three-wide at Road America in 2011 to trigger a crash that collected several cars. The notoriety then grew when he spun Danica Patrick on the final lap in last year's return.

It's created what Villeneuve called "a preconceived idea" of how he races.

"What you have to try to avoid is the stupid moves like the one I did in Elkhart Lake two years ago," he said Friday. "That was stupid and I took a couple of guys out. That happens to everyone. That one cost a lot. And last year I ran into Danica and that was the worst thing you can do in racing. It doesn't matter ultimately how or why it happened, that's enough to create this image and now I am stuck with it."

The image didn't scare off Phoenix Racing owner James Finch, who wanted a wheelman for the No. 51 Chevrolet that Kurt Busch nearly drove to victory in last year. With IndyCar and the 24 Hours of Le Mans also running this weekend, the pool of available "road course ringers" was small.

So the team found Villeneuve, who in December had relocated his wife and three children to the tiny country of Andora, where he's been doing F1 commentary this year. He was offered the No. 51 seat — which was apparently a relief to the Nationwide regulars.

"This year, we don't have Jacques Villeneuve over here to drive us crazy," Nelson Piquet Jr. said at Road America.

In Sonoma instead, he didn't get the warmest of greetings from Patrick.

"I saw him in the rookie meeting and I was like 'Oh, hey,'" Patrick said. "After all the things that have happened, it's hard to have any respect for someone like that. I have respect for his career, but I can't respect him for what he does to others on the race track."

But Phoenix Racing viewed Villeneuve's addition as a boon for the struggling company. Finch has claimed he's shutting the team down at the end of July, a fate that could potentially be staved off by some good on-track results.

"A Formula One champ, an IndyCar champ, driving our car, that's pretty big for James," said Phoenix general manager Steve Barkdoll, who felt the weekend schedule at Sonoma with two long Friday practice sessions and Saturday group qualifying would benefit Villeneuve.

It wasn't a totally hostile reception for Villeneuve, who found a familiar and friendly face in former F1 rival Juan Pablo Montoya. Since the two are no longer in the cutthroat open-wheel series, Villeneuve has found Montoya to be helpful during his forays into NASCAR.

The two first bumped into each other in the garage before Friday practice, where Montoya gave Villeneuve a turn by turn analysis of the 1.99-mile course. He told Villeneuve where to brake, where to slow, where to attempt a pass — even where to avoid bumps.

"He'll race fair. I don't think he's a guy who will wreck on purpose. Same way I am — if you push my buttons, I push back. That's the way we are," Montoya said. "I think he can do a good job. He's a racer and he wants to win. He'll do whatever it takes to win.

"You learn when you come to NASCAR full-time there are times to go and times to mellow. In F1 if you mellow, you go home."

At 42, Villeneuve has not fully given up on racing. He tried for several years to put together a NASCAR program but found the sponsorship climate too difficult because American companies weren't interested in a French-Canadian driver and Canadian money never materialized.

Then came the decision to relocate full-time to Europe and take a stab at television, which Villeneuve has found he enjoys more than he expected.

"It's not my childhood dream, but I am having fun. I am definitely having fun," he said. "But I prefer driving. I am still a racer. Still a racer at heart."

He was part of a group that unsuccessfully tried to purchase Red Bull Racing's assets when the team pulled out of NASCAR, and if Finch is truly serious about pulling the plug, then Phoenix Racing could be an opportunity for Villeneuve to get back into a car on a regular basis.

Villeneuve said he'd "have to start looking at it again" when asked Friday if he was considering buying Phoenix Racing from Finch. But he insisted he's interested in NASCAR and wants to race.

"Racing is my blood. It's always tough to just jump in for a race or two because you cannot plan anything," he said. "That makes it complicated. I've gone a few years of different races all around the planet, so it would be nice to focus on one (series) so you could work with the team properly. I was getting a bit of that in Nationwide because I worked with the same team for more than one year in a row, so you get used to the people and the car, it would be nice to build that again."

He'd also like to run a clean and quiet race Sunday that cleans up his reputation.

"It's kind of overblown. I've been pushed off the track a lot more than the other way around," he said. "But the perception is that I've been dirty and a dangerous driver. I know the reputation that I have and I think it's been blown out of proportion. That's life. You have to live with it. I've been taken out a lot more often than when I took people out. I was taken out when I was on the lead lap, as well, and that seemed acceptable.

"I'm not here to take people out. I'm not here to get anybody angry, either. So hopefully race hard but clean. I'm not here to be a hero."

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