Villeneuve runs first lead laps in NASCAR, shows race-winning pace, `looking forward to Daytona'
On Friday night in Homestead, Miami, Jacques Villeneuve demonstrated that he will be a serious contender inside NASCAR's `Sprint Cup' series in 2008, leading the `Ford 200' Craftsman Truck race for 9 laps at half race distance. It was his battle with Cup front runner, Kyle Busch who came to Homestead having won the last three truck races that had NASCAR's experts singing Villeneuve's praises though.
Having qualified 3, Villeneuve made a small mistake at the start of the race, and in a series where half a second can split the fastest drivers from the mid-pack, the rookie was back in 15 place as he crossed the finish line at the end of the first lap. Struggling with a loose car, quick-thinking by his Bill Davis Racing pit-crew saw the rookie Canadian pit for chassis changes, fuel and tires as early as the 14 lap, and rejoining the field in 28, it took a while for the story behind the pit stop to unfold. By the 63 lap, after the other trucks had pitted, Villeneuve's blue UNICEF Tundra was leading. With Kyle Busch trying every way he could to force his way past, Villeneuve remained composed, and stayed in front until the 72 lap.
With much of the media's attention on the battle for the series win, between Villeneuve's BDR team- mate Mike Skinner, and another NASCAR veteran, Ron Hornaday, the 73 lap was to prove Skinner's un-doing when he lost a rear wheel, and was forced to pit. Villeneuve pitted along with the rest of the field and rejoined the race in 5 place. On the 80 lap, the race was back to full speed and running 5, Villeneuve got high on the banking, got into some disturbed air with the 21 truck of Jon Wood, and spun-out into the perimeter wall, suffering sufficient damage to bring his race to an abrupt end. Back in the garage area, a disappointed Villeneuve was glad to have had the opportunity to run up-front, saying, "A disappointing end to a great race. The truck started loose, but the guys did a great job at the first stop, and we were strong. Running at the front was good, and no more difficult than running in 20th, so I'm glad to have done that before moving on to next season. Busch gave me the chance to learn a bit more. We could have finished strongly, but it wasn't to be this week."
After exchanging a few words with his occasional crew chief and spotter, Richard `Slugger' Labbe, Villeneuve turned his attention to the on-track action. Moments later, team mate Skinner rejoined the action, with no real chance to regain the laps lost in the pits as his crew worked to repair a damaged rear wheel hub, but determined to run as fast as he could. Back on the pace, Skinner was left to watch as it seemed certain that Busch was on his way to a fourth consecutive win, but on the very last lap of the race, under a green and white checker, Bill Davis Racing veteran Johnny Benson, driving the no.23 Exide Batteries Toyota Tundra, passed Busch on the low-side, to take a dramatic win.
Finishing 7, Ron Hornaday claimed the series win, with Skinner the final finisher - classified 35, seven laps off the lead. Benson's win guaranteed him 3 place in the series, cementing BDR's status as the team to beat in Craftsman Truck. Among the first to commiserate with Skinner, Jacques Villeneuve offered, "That was really bad luck for Mike after such a strong, and reliable season; but that's racing, and I know he'll bounce back twice as strong. Johnny's move was slick they'll be talking about that one for a while." Asked about his plans for 2008, Villeneuve, who lives in his native Montreal with his young family, took the chance to sign-off from the truck series, "Before thinking about next year, I need to thank everybody at BDR for their efforts and support over these last couple of months. I've a lot to learn, and I've had a lot of help from a lot of good people. I'd like to thank Bill and Gail Davis, Mike Brown, Mark Chambers, `Slugger' (Labbe) and all of the guys on both the truck and Cup teams, as well as everyone back at the shop. For next season, there'll be an announcement soon enough, but I'm looking forward to Daytona."