NASCAR Cup Series
Next Gen Era Begins with Much-Needed High Fives and Fun
Feb 7, 2022
Jacques Villeneuve is one of the most decorated race car drivers in the world, and at 50 years old, he could choose to do anything with his life.
Instead of spending a week on the yacht or at one of his very swanky homes, the 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner, 1995 IndyCar champion and 1997 Formula 1 World Drivers Champion has entered the Daytona 500 with a brand-new team, minimally funded team without a guaranteed starting position based out of Europe.
"After I won F1 and the Indy 500, I guess it could be a difficult decision to take because if you don’t make the show, you could damage your reputation," Villeneuve said. "You can damage the 30 years of hard work you put in your career. So, there’s always a big risk involved in that aspect, but I just love racing.
"I’m passionate. I’m alive when I’m behind a steering wheel. The bigger the race, the better."
His No. 27 Ford Mustang is owned by former sports car driver Toine Hezemans, Dutch businessman Ernst Berg and Reaume Brothers Racing in the United States under the moniker Team Hezeberg. Villeneuve will compete with Kaz Grala, Timmy Hill, JJ Yeley, Noah Gragson and Greg Biffle for the final four spots reserved for teams without an ownership charter.
In other words, two teams will be sent home after Thursday night.
It’s a position Villeneuve has been in before. The Quebecois entered the Daytona 500 in 2008 but crashed out of his qualifying duel and did not make the Sunday show.
"It’s a little bit of a gamble when you have to qualify during the Duels," Villeneuve said. "You could be the quickest car out there and still get caught out. When I tried to qualify years ago … the car was quick, but then I got caught up in a crash and then you don’t make the show. It’s very stressful."
Since his retirement from Formula 1 in 2006, Villeneuve has made sporadic attempts to become a regular across all three NASCAR national touring divisions. He has four starts at the highest level with a best finish of 21st at Talladega in 2007. He has nine Xfinity Series starts with third-place finishes at Montreal and Road America. He made seven Truck Series starts in 2007 with a best finish of 14th at Atlanta.
Villeneuve has raced in the NASCAR Euro Series over the past two seasons, which is how he first connected with Loris Hezemans, the racing son of Toine Hezemans. Villeneuve had always kept an open mind about someday returning to the Cup Series in some capacity and Team Hezeberg has provided that opportunity.
Loris Hezemans is set to race the team’s Next Gen car in the road course events this season.
"I’ve never stopped racing," Villeneuve said. "I’ve never stopped wanting to race in NASCAR, which is why I was racing a little bit in Europe. But now with the European team, coming in with a Heisenberg, we got in contact so they were wanting the general experience. It’s not everyone who wants to drive for an unqualified car. It’s a tough endeavor and it is a small team. But there are good chances that we make the show."
Villeneuve will have two chances to make the field of 40. If unable to race his way into the field, he could fall back on his single car time trials effort if it proves fast enough. Regardless of the results, Villeneuve has arrived in Florida for a good time, having brought his wife, their two teenagers and two-week-old newborn with him.
Simply having a chance at the Harley J. Earl would be icing on a cake that has included wins at the highest international levels of motorsports.
"It’s going to be quite a weekend, an important weekend," he said. "If we can make the show in qualifying, it will be a very exciting time."