TALLADEGA, Ala. – Jacques Villeneuve finished the race and made no enemies Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
After several drivers were critical of the former Formula One champion and Indy 500 winner for deciding to make his NASCAR Nextel Cup debut at one of the most dangerous and demanding stock car tracks, Villeneuve came through with a 21st-place finish in the UAW-Ford 500, despite bouncing off the wall at one point.
Villeneuve qualified sixth in his Bill Davis Racing Toyota, but relinquished that spot to move to the back of the field for the start of the race.
“We decided to do it this morning,” he said. “It was the logical thing to do. Our car was set up for qualifying and we didn’t know how it was going to handle. Starting from the front or the back doesn’t really change anything.
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“I had more to learn from the back, anyway. Also, it was to show respect to all the guys fighting for the Chase (for the championship). I was thankful for them allowing me to race here, which is really special to me. It was just a way of saying thankyou.”
It wasn’t an easy day for Villeneuve, though.
“Early in the race was tough for some reason,” he said. “I was really tight. I almost ran into a couple of people on the inside line because of that. I didn’t want that to happen, so I moved up to the high line. That’s why I got into the wall.
“On one of the big wrecks, I slammed on the brakes and went down to the apron, but got sandwiched between a couple of cars. I lost the shifter ball and the radio plug came loose, and I lost third gear on the last restart. So we had a lot of things going on. But it was a great day to learn and I’m quite happy with the result.”
Reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson, who spent a lot of time deep in the pack before coming on late in the race to finish second to teammate Jeff Gordon, said he was impressed by Villeneuve’s drive.
“I saw him a little bit and he was just doing fine,” Johnson said. “He got through the race and I’m sure gained some respect from the other guys and trust. I’m sure he’ll say that was a good day.”
“The goal today was to stay out of trouble and not make enemies so next time I come back everything will be a little bit easier,” Villeneuve said. “We accomplished that.”