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Villeneuve follows fellow open-wheel racers to NASCAR

9/1/2007

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.

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.