Drivers Hope Villeneuve Stays 'On Track'

Montoya-Villeneuve

Montoya (right) helps Villeneuve before Friday’s practice, describing the characteristics and challenges of each corner around the 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway course. (Photo: Dustin Long)

SONOMA, Calif. - Jacques Villeneuve has won a Formula 1 championship and an Indianapolis 500, but that’s not what Clint Bowyer thinks of when he hears Villeneuve’s name.

"Train wreck," Bowyer said Friday at Sonoma Raceway.  "Extremely fast train but usually ends up derailed somehow."

Despite Villeneuve’s achievements, his reputation to many in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing is more of an out-of-control driver who seems willing to do anything to get to the front, even wrecking competitors.  They cringe that Villeneuve is driving this weekend for Phoenix Racing in the No. 51 car, which challenged for the win last year with Kurt Busch.

Some worry what it might be like with Villeneuve, whose two Nationwide starts last year were surrounded in controversy at Road America and Montreal, near the front.

Bowyer offers a warning for Villeneuve.

"If that respect is not there, you’re not going to come in and beat and bang on this bunch for long," said Bowyer, defending Sonoma race winner.  "That’s not a threat.  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 that came out."

Ryan Newman is more direct.

"I'll race him the way I feel I need to race him according to how he races me," Newman said, "and if that doesn't work out right, we'll take it out behind the truck afterwards and figure out who is right and who is wrong."

Villeneuve understands his reputation, which was magnified after he spun Danica Patrick on the last lap of last year’s Nationwide Series race at Road America.

"I know the reputation that I have and I think it’s been blown out of proportion," Villeneuve said before Friday’s practice.  "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.  That’s not the plan or the goal.  Whenever you can have a clean race, it’s a lot better."

Avoiding trouble won’t be easy at this tight, technical road course where the amount of aggression has intensified in recent years.  With limited passing zones and impatient drivers, cars will bounce off each other throughout Sunday’s race.  There’s a good chance Villeneuve will be a part of it just because it’s unavoidable.

The key is not being too aggressive.

"What you have to try and avoid are the stupid moves like the one I did at Elkhart Lake two years ago," Villeneuve said, referring to an attempt to go three-wide on the narrow Road America course that crashed Max Papis and Brian Scott.  "That was stupid and I took a couple guys out.  That happens to everyone.  That cost a lot.  Last year, I ran into Danica and that was the worst thing you could ever do in racing.  That’s enough to create this image and now I’m stuck with it."

Juan Pablo Montoya, whose car is parked beside his former rival in the garage, isn’t worried about Villeneuve.

"(Drivers like Villeneuve) are hired to come here to win the race," Montoya said.  "They’re not hired to let someone by.  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 helped Villeneuve before Friday’s practice, describing the characteristics and challenges of each corner on the 1.99-mile course and said he would be available throughout the weekend.

"I think he can do a good job," Montoya said.  "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."

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