Indy a bittersweet reunion for Villeneuve

7/25/2010 - NASCAR

INDIANAPOLIS -- When last he raced on the storied oval here, Jacques Villeneuve won the last great Indy 500 and instantly became the most sought-after driver in the world. He seemed destined to become the greatest.

Fifteen years later, he is knocking at NASCAR's backdoor, chapeau in hand, trying to qualify for Sunday's Brickyard 400 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Still, Villeneuve's very presence is a thunderclap of nostalgia, a flashback to the twin pinnacles of Indianapolis Motor Speedway's now-wasted glory and Villeneuve's now-wasted talent.

But now, he's in NASCAR, racing a go-or-go-home car for Saturday's time trials ... at age 39.

To remember 1995, the fearless young Quebecois and the grand old race and how magnificent they were, the last Indy 500 before the disastrous schism in American open-wheel racing ... how he came from two laps down to win the last running of what was then unquestioned as the world's greatest race, before the world's most mammoth grandstands, where every single seat was filled that day for the last time ... the last Indy 500 before Villeneuve flew off to Europe and Formula One, where he would win a world championship in 1997 ... it's all enough to choke you up.

Villeneuve the man is not a hardship case at all, having made millions even in his last F1 years, when he drove for the mediocre British American Racing (BAR) team founded by his longtime manager, Craig Pollock.

So he had the chipper smile and the tone of a securely rich man when he spoke Friday of an upstart NASCAR effort, and largely dodged questions about whether he is quietly working to start a new F1 team -- except to acknowledge that "there's been a lot of talks about Formula One, and as long as this is an option, I have to keep it open."

He mastered this old rectangular track in only two tries. In '94, he finished second and was rookie of the year. In '95, he won it.

But now he's in a car that weighs twice as much and goes drastically slower than the car that, 15 years ago, was the high watermark of Indy technology.

When asked if anything translated between the two circuits, he had to think about it.

"Well, the pure driving will be different than in an Indy car because the whole lap, in qualifying, anyway, was flat out, with just a little lift in the race, where in NASCAR, you have to brake.

"But, the banking is not that strong [only 9 degrees here], so it should drive a little bit like a high-speed road course, in a way -- well, that's what I'm hoping for."

And he should, because Villeneuve has mastered road racing in stock cars. Last month, in a Nationwide race at Elkhart Lake, Wisc., driving for the same Braun Racing team that brought him back to Indy, Villeneuve dueled with Carl Edwards for most of the afternoon before falling back with a sputtering engine.

Still thinking of what can be applied now from 1995, he said, "The one thing that can be helpful is the memory of how it's a long race and a lot happens on this track. There's no point in going crazy early on.

"In '95, within the first 30 laps, two laps were taken away from us because we got a penalty and we had to catch back those two laps. This is definitely a track where you bide your time."

He had to learn that penalty, at 230 mph via team radio, from his team owner, Barry Green.

Villeneuve, then 24, was seething in his car over the penalty, but Green was patient on the radio, calming the young driver. In his Australian accent, Green pronounced Jacques as "Jack."

"Soldier on, Jack," Green would say in a steady, reassuring tone. "Soldier on, mate."

And Villeneuve did, making up the two laps, and after the final caution was pressuring leader Scott Goodyear so horrifically that Goodyear jumped the pace car on the restart and was penalized himself, Villeneuve rocketed on to win easily.

But he was bent on racing F1, even though it had taken the life of his electrifying father, Gilles Villeneuve, in 1982 when Jacques was only 11 years old.

So it was off to Europe in '96, and Villeneuve began winning as a rookie, even though he played the second role on the Williams team to another son of another legend, Damon Hill, son of Graham Hill.

In '97, Villeneuve engaged in a rivalry with the skyrocketing German Michael Schumacher, in a match of Villeneuve's almost-blasé cool versus Schumacher's ferocious style.

The cool won out in the season finale in Jerez, Spain, where Schumacher crashed while trying to wreck Villeneuve, and Villeneuve coolly cruised to the world championship.

But his career plummeted from there, because his old friend Pollock could never give him a competitive ride with the upstart BAR team. The story around F1 for years was that Villeneuve had left the notoriously frugal Frank Williams for huge money with Pollock.

He returned to Indy for the first few runnings of the U.S. Grand Prix, but that was mostly on the infield road course, and BAR was too weak for Villeneuve to make much of a splash at Indy again.

"Williams is not a team that keeps their world champions," he said when asked whether he has ever regretted leaving Williams. "That's always been like that. If you look at every champion they've had [including Hill the year before him], normally they went somewhere else right after.

"Creating BAR wasn't a question of money, because the money was there on [offers from] other teams. It was just a great challenge that [and here he uttered a deep, wry chuckle] didn't work out the way we'd hoped for."

As he faded from the fore of F1, he never considered returning to IndyCar because both sides were so weakened by the split.

"After the split it went from being a top-notch series [CART] to -- it wasn't at the same level as Formula One anymore. Where, before that, it was quite close. … After that, it split into two series and became two half-series. So it felt like it would be a step back."

Even lately, "There were some options to do it this year, but my focus was either on NASCAR or Formula One -- which are still the top two forms of racing in the world."

NASCAR is why he moved back to Canada in 2006, and since then he has dabbled in the Truck series but hasn't been able to put together a substantive deal.

In 2007 he tried to make the Daytona 500, was welcomed by his NASCAR counterparts as a world-class professional, and was running well in a qualifying race before he was caught up in a crash and missed the 500. His Nationwide racing for Braun has been on road courses -- Elkhart Lake being his most impressive performance -- until now.

His return to Indy is a fascinating if fledgling effort, but it also brings on sad remembrance of the fearless young man and the grand old racetrack, together at the pinnacle.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.