DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jacques Villeneuve has a Formula One title to his name and an Indianapolis 500 victory. He has nothing left to prove and yet celebrated as if qualifying for the Daytona 500 was the biggest win of his career.
The 50-year-old doubted he could make it into the race through Wednesday night's time trials at Daytona International Speedway. His Ford wasn't particularly fast and needed three tries to pass NASCAR inspection.
So when he posted the fastest time of the six cars eligible in time trials to earn a spot in Sunday's field, Villeneuve erupted in joy and jogged his way down pit lane in search of his crew.
“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,” he said. "As long as it carries on like this, I can’t imagine myself stopping racing.
“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.' No, the hunger has never stopped ... 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, that’s when you should stop.”
The Canadian wasn't fast enough to earn a front row starting spot, which are technically the only two positions for the season-opening Daytona 500 available via time trials. Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson earned the pole and will lead Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman to the green Sunday.
Bowman will start on the front row for the fifth time in his career. It was the seventh pole in the last eight Daytona 500s for Hendrick Motorsports and team owner Rick Hendrick was on the phone with his drivers as soon as the session ended.
But everyone knew the Hendrick cars were going to lock down the front row in time trials; Hendrick had the three fastest cars and four of the fastest five, and a Chevrolet won the pole for the 10th consecutive year.
The only intrigue was which two “open teams” would lock into Sunday's 40-car field in time trials. There are four spots in the field earmarked for teams that don't own a charter that guarantees entry every week, but two were awarded Wednesday night.
Villeneuve was in one of the six cars vying for those one of the spots and locked himself into his first Daytona 500 by beating the other five open teams. Noah Gragson, who was born a year after Villeneuve won his 1997 F1 title, earned the second spot.
Gragson qualified for his Cup debut driving for Beard Motorsports, which tried to get him into the Daytona 500 last year only to fall just short.
Villeneuve, who failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 in his only other attempt 14 years ago, called making Sunday's race a career highlight.
“Obviously, it’s not a win. It’s not like winning the Indy 500 or the F1 championship, but at this point in my career ... just to make the show is incredible because it’s a small team,” Villeneuve said. "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 those big wins.”
The final two open spots will be filled in Thursday night's duel qualifying races, which set the entire starting lineup.
Villeneuve just last week explained why a 50-year-old world champion would show up at Daytona with a brand new team. He admitted that failing to make the race could damage his legacy, but Villeneuve said the risk was worth it because he ranks the Daytona 500 alongside the Indy 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans as the three biggest races in the world.
But after earning a spot in the Daytona 500 — Villeneuve missed the race 14 years ago in his only other attempt to run “The Great American Race” — he didn't particularly think he'd done anything special.
“When you win Indy and F1 and you get here and don't make it, it's either great or bad, there's no middle line,” Villeneuve. “But thanks a lot to the new car, to the Next Gen, because that's allowed the team to come in and build a car and that was a big thing.”
NASCAR this year has introduced a new car, the Next Gen, that is in part designed to open an affordable entry into the sport. Team Hezeberg used the car to expand its organization and, in a collaborative effort between former sports car driver Toine Hezemans, Dutch businessman Ernst Berg and Reaume Brothers Racing, eyed a partial Cup schedule this season.
Loris Hezemans, son of the team owner, has been announced as the primary driver but the 24-year-old is not approved to race at Daytona. So Villeneuve, who races alongside Hezemans in Europe, pulled his two oldest children out of school in Switzerland and brought them to Florida with his partner, Giulia, and their newborn three-week-old son.
“My eldest saw my race only once, or maybe twice in rally cross,” Villeneuve said of his 15-year-old. “Something big like this? Never.”
His newborn is named Gilles after Villeneuve's late father. The Canadian hero was 32-years-old when he was killed in a crash in the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, and Villeneuve said it took him until his fifth child to feel comfortable using his father's name.
“Maybe by the time I was 50 I was ready," he said. "It took a while to get to that point because he wasn’t a very present father. It was different days back then, so I guess I had a lot to digest and at this point in my life I was ready to do that and it felt right.”
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