Villenueve Making Daytona 500 is Right Below F1 Title, Indy 500 Win

"The most fun I’ve had racing has been in NASCAR."

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At 50-years-old, Jacques Villeneuve isn’t going to win another Formula 1 world championship, IndyCar championship or the Indianapolis 500, and he probably isn’t going to win the Daytona 500 either, but simply making the Great American Race is something he will cherish for the rest of his days.

The feeling isn’t too dissimilar from Oct. 31 when he stood atop the podium at Autodromo di Vallelunga with Vittorio Ghirelli and Gianmarco Ercoli. Even at his advanced age, he belonged with racers at their physical peak and still had something to offer to the international motorsport community.

"I got this (feeling) last year because I won the last race in the Euro NASCAR and on the podium, there were 20-year-olds and then they look at you and you can see that they were confused," Villeneuve said. "To be able to make such a big race at such a high level is amazing and when I’m in the race car I don’t realize that I’m 50, which is good. As long as it carries on like this, I can’t imagine myself stopping racing."

Villeneuve said making the Daytona 500 through time trials was "the biggest surprise," because "I didn’t think we had the speed" to advance into the 40-car field. Team Hezeberg Powered By Reaume Brothers Racing was one of six entries vying for four spots permitted to teams without an ownership charter.

Two of those spots are guaranteed to the two fastest cars in time trials and both Villeneuve and Noah Gragson of Beard Motorsports piloted their cars into the Daytona 500.

Again, this isn’t winning a world championship or the Greatest Spectacle in Racing but at this point of his career, it is rewarding in its own distinct way.

"Obviously, it’s not a win," Villeneuve said. "It’s not like winning the Indy 500 or the F1 championship, but at this point in my career the last time I tried to qualify here was 14 years ago, just to make the show is incredible because it’s a small team. We didn’t link up with a big team to get the car ready and it’s highly unexpected to be able to make it on time, so it ranks right after these big wins."

Earlier in the week, Villeneuve suggested that his reputation could be lessened if he didn’t make the race, because it would be twice that he came to Daytona and left without taking the green flag. That’s probably unfair given how little driver input ultimately plays into superspeedway qualifying but Villeneuve believed it.

This was only possible because of the debuting Next Gen racing platform, an entirely spec race car designed to limit the playing field by forcing every team to buy the same parts from the same approved vendor. Loris Hezemans, son of the team owner, will serve as the primary driver in its limited schedule but isn't approved for Daytona.

The car still must be constructed by the team but Team Hezeberg and Reaume Brothers Racing have the same components as the Hendrick Motorsports bunch that dominated time trials by placing Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman on the front row.

The perfect storm of circumstances is what appealed to Villeneuve in giving it one more shot, because if he simply made the race, whatever happens next would be a bonus.

"It’s satisfying and amazing because there’s quite a few times where I’ve been hearing, 'OK, come on. You’ve passed it. Just give it up,' and, no, the hunger has never stopped," Villeneuve said, "and experience is only a big help until the day where I guess you start getting your foot off the throttle because you get a little bit scared or you don’t get that adrenaline rush anymore as a positive thing, but start getting it as a negative that’s when you should stop, but until that moment experience is only a benefit."

Villeneuve says he feels the most alive behind a steering wheel, and under the right circumstances, anyone could theoretically win this race -- not that his legacy needs it. Making the race was the primary goal.

"We didn’t run much in the pack because our focus was trying to get in on time, and it worked out so that was the right decision to make," Villeneuve said. "Now, will anybody want to race with me or to draft with me in the race? That will be a little bit more difficult, but what comes Sunday then there’s nothing to lose anymore. The key is to not destroy the car (in the Duel). (Thursday) is a good time to maybe test the drafting, but we don’t have spares and half the teams don’t have spares, so I can’t imagine being as aggressive as it normally is during a Duel."

Ultimately, it's just a significant story having Villeneuve make the race. In some ways, it's quite remarkable to see a Formula 1 world champion and Indianapolis 500 winner go incognito in the Daytona International Speedway garage area while the likes of Larson, Bowman, Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch receive all the attention.

Villeneuve says he feels respect from his peers and within the industry, but at the same time, this is one more chance to prove that he's more than just an open wheeler. He's had success in the NASCAR Xfinity Series while winning a race in NASCAR Euro.

But the Daytona 500 could be his last chance on a global stage to remind everyone who he is ... even at age 50.

"This is very old-fashioned, but when I was in F1 I didn’t think I would be able to drive anything else," Villenueve said. "I was so focused and groomed for those kind of cars, and it’s not until I jumped into a NASCAR that I realized there was a lot of fun to be had driving something different and I’ve had a blast ever since just jumping in different kind of cars.

"The most fun I’ve had racing has been in NASCAR, not qualifying because it’s hard to beat the speed that you get in Formula 1, but racing wheel-to-wheel or fender-to-fender, you can’t beat the way it goes in NASCAR."