Villeneuve follows fellow open-wheel racers to NASCAR

Other team's success in bringing open wheel drivers to NASCAR and Bill Davis Racing's track record in bold gambles make the hiring of Jacques Villeneuve a risk well worth taking.

Updated: September 1, 2007, 2:21 PM ET
By Bill Whitehead | Scripps Howard News Service

NASCAR team owner Bill Davis dug deeply into the bag of famous sports figures whose surname begins with V last week, signing a driver whose last name isn't Valenzuela, Villegas or even Van Arsdale. And if you have a hard time spelling the name, it goes like this: V-I-L-L-E-N-E-U-V-E. Jacques Villeneuve, that is.

Jacques Villeneuve
AP Photo/Joseph OliverJacques Villeneuve tests a Toyota Tundra on Tuesday at Chicagoland Speedway.

It's safe to say that Open Wheel Madness has cloaked NASCAR in a big way. Thanks to unprecedented success and championship performances courtesy of Tony Stewart, plus wins from drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya, Kasey Kahne, Casey Mears, Ryan Newman and Robby Gordon, a team owner such as Davis is willing to take a chance on a prominent driver from another form of racing.

Even Ginn Motorsports ventured into the fray before merging with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., inking 18-time motocross champion Ricky Carmichael. The 27-year-old Clearwater, Fla., native is being tutored by Mark Martin and can be seen occasionally at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway, but his learning curve so far in late models has been as steep as Bristol's high banks.

Villeneuve, a former Formula 1 world champion and 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner, tested a truck with Bill Davis Racing driver Mike Skinner earlier this week. In shaking down their Toyota Tundras at Chicagoland Speedway, the pair turned laps in the 31-second range, and Villeneuve, 36, ran times slightly slower but close to Skinner's.

But this is a huge gamble by BDR, signing a driver who hasn't competed on an oval since 1995 and will attempt to resharpen his skills in the trucks for the remainder of the year, beginning at Las Vegas on Sept. 22, possibly with the chance of making his Cup debut at the end of the season.

BDR took a chance on a driver from the USAC series in the early 1990s, a guy who went on to win four Cup titles -- Jeff Gordon. Since that time, BDR has won the Daytona 500 and Southern 500, but this will be the organization's biggest gamble to date, maybe even greater than switching to Toyota.

A gamble that Davis hopes will lead to another V word: Victories.

  • Speaking of talented road racers, one of NASCAR's best drivers at turning right will celebrate his 900th start Sunday night at California. Ricky Rudd, who recently announced he would retire at season's end, began racing at NASCAR's top level in 1975 and has won 23 races, including six on three different road courses.

  • What happened at Bristol on Aug. 25? After a good Busch race the night before in the currently used car, the 43 drivers and their Cars of Tomorrow stunk it up in the most popular race for the second consecutive year. Surely there was better racing on Highways 19 and 11E by fans leaving the track.

  • Actor R. Lee Ermey will serve as honorary starter in three weeks when the series holds its second Chase race at Dover. Ermey, a retired U.S. Marine staff sergeant, is well known for his edgy performance in 'Full Metal Jacket." NASCAR should let him reprise his role as Sgt. Hartman and conduct the drivers' meeting before the Dover race.

  • Are we all just sitting here waiting for the Chase to start? With the last two positions in the Chase seemingly secured -- unless something really drastic happens in the next two races -- there is very little left to watch except to see who wins.

  • Condolences to Roush Fenway Racing owner Jack Roush, whose mother Georgetta passed away earlier this week at the age of 92. She was the designated owner for the No. 97 Nextel Cup entry from 1998 through 2005, including 2004 when the team won its first Cup championship.

  • Racing journalist and on-air personality Dick Berggren will receive the Bobby Isaac Memorial Award in October. Berggren will get the award before the Charlotte Busch race for outstanding contribution to short-track racing.