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Jacques Hopes To Be Nimble, Quick At Montreal

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 26 2010

Former world driving champion Jacques Villeneuve takes a corner at Road America earlier this summer. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

There was a time when Jacques Villeneuve owned the city of Montreal.

When the driver from Quebec was racing in Formula One, whether he was winning races or struggling for points finishes, Villeneuve was THE driver when Formula One came to town. He was a favorite target of the paparazzi and fans pushed and shoved just to get a glimpse of the man who won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and CART championship and the 1997 F1 title.

His F1 career included 10 races in Montreal, with a best finish of second in 1996, his rookie season.

Those days are long gone now for the 39-year-old racer, who hasn’t driven an F1 car since 2006. He remains a popular figure in Montreal, but the old Villeneuve hysteria is nothing more than a memory as he prepares to race in this week’s NASCAR Nationwide race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the island track named after his late father, a popular F1 driver until his tragic death in the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.

The younger Villeneuve appears determined to carve out a new career in NASCAR. He has laid the groundwork by driving a handful of races in all three of NASCAR’s touring series – trucks, Nationwide and Sprint Cup since 2007.

A win at Montreal could be a key step toward that goal.

This will be his third try at winning what for him is a hometown event. In 2008, Villeneuve, driving for Braun Racing, started fifth and led the race before crashing while running fourth on the final lap of the rain-shortened event, finishing 16th.

Last year, back with Braun, he started sixth and went on to a NASCAR career-best finish of fourth.

“This year, we have an added advantage,’’ Villeneuve noted. “This will be my third race with the Dollar General team in 2010 and my fourth with (crew chief) Trent Owens.’’

In the first  of  two Nationwide events this year, Villeneuve started second and had his No. 32 Toyota running second late in the race at Road America before a mechanical problem relegated him to a 25th-place finish. He  started sixth and finished eighth earlier this month at Watkins Glen.

Both of those runs helped him and the team build chemistry and confidence.

“We’ve be able to strengthen our communication and I feel we have our best opportunity ever to win the race at Montreal,’’ Villeneuve said. “We are bringing the same car that we took to Road America. The car handled tremendously well there and I feel it will be very fitting for the course in Montreal.

“Any time you have a car that reacts exactly the way you want it to and it feels like it is an extension of yourself, you can have a lot of fun driving it! That is how this car was at Road America and I can’t wait to get back in it this weekend.”

To get the job done, Villeneuve said the team has concentrated on beefing up the brakes for the tough 2.71-mile, 14-turn road course on Notre Dame Island near downtown Montreal.

“Montreal, it’s the brakes, how heavy you have to hit the brake pedal, lap after lap,” he explained. “And that’s where it gets tough. If you’re going to brake hard the whole race, then you almost need two feet. So that makes it very tough, if you’re doing it for three hours.

“The later you brake, the more heat gets in there and then everything starts bending, basically, so you end up with a brake pedal that gets long.’’

He had a similar problem at Watkins Glen.

“I was hitting the bottom of the brakes and I just couldn’t brake any harder,” Villeneuve said. “There was nothing else to press and they get hot to the point where it just slides and it doesn’t brake anymore.”

If the team can solve that problem this week, Villeneuve could finally be back in Victory Lane at Circuit Gilles Villeneuves for the first time since winning a Toyota Atlantic race there in 1993. More important, a win could give his NASCAR career a needed boost.

“We are pulling out all the stops for Montreal so we can compete,” he said. “The first year when it was the heavy rain, we led the lap and then I crashed under a caution. That was a little bit annoying. And we were quite competitive last year. So I think we are coming this year to try and win it.”

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 26 2010
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