Villeneuve Looks to Jump-Start Career in NASCAR's Truck Series

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - A little over a year ago, Jacques Villeneuve had finally found peace in politically charged Formula One.

He was newly married with a baby on the way, his ride with BMW-Sauber seemed secure and he had just launched his second career as a recording artist. Things were so good, he dismissed ever returning to the United States to compete in one of its three racing series.

"Perhaps if I was a young man again," he said at his hometown Canadian Grand Prix last June. "But as a family man, it's just too much."

How things have changed.

Villeneuve lost his F1 seat shortly after, then spent the rest of the year working the NASCAR garages trying to find a way into America's top racing series. He finally put together a deal last week with Bill Davis Racing, and spent Monday and Tuesday testing a Toyota Tundra.

He's scheduled to run the final seven Truck Series events of this season, beginning with the Sept. 22 race in Las Vegas.

So why the change of heart?

"I needed to do something in racing that was at an extremely high level, which NASCAR is, but something different," he said. "And I was missing the ovals also, so it sounded like a great challenge. I really wanted to get into it."

Villeneuve was the one who paved the path that current Nextel Cup rookie Juan Pablo Montoya also took through American racing into F1.

Villeneuve won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and CART championship, then jumped the next season into a competitive F1 ride with Williams. He was world champion one year later.

It quickly made him a national hero in Canada, which had been searching for an auto racing star to replace the void created when his father, Gilles Villeneuve, was killed in a 1982 crash at the Belgian Grand Prix.

But Villeneuve was never able to match that early success in F1. He openly feuded with Michael Schumacher, left Williams for a tumultuous five-year stint with BAR-Honda and then found himself out of racing for most of 2004.

When he returned with Sauber the next season, everyone knew it was his last chance. He didn't make it two full seasons.

"I don't know how it is in NASCAR yet, but I'm sure there's politics everywhere," Villeneuve said. "But it was hard to beat the high level of politics of Formula One ... most of the time it overshadows the sport. This is a shame as a racer.

"As long as you're winning, it's great. But as soon as you're not winning, then the politics take over, and it does make racing not fun at all."

Montoya cited similar complaints with F1 when he made the jump to NASCAR last summer, and the Colombian has been thrilled with the relaxed atmosphere and focus on competition. He believes Villeneuve will thrive in the series.

"I think here people are a little more friendly," Montoya said. "All the drivers, you can talk to people. You can go to X-guy and Y-guy to the motor homes and you talk to them and you see them and I think that's really nice."

Villeneuve right now is scheduled to finish the Truck season and drive an ARCA car at Talladega in October. Davis said he wants Villeneuve in the Cup series next season, but Villeneuve said they don't have a deal yet.

Agreeing to terms is the just first hurdle Villeneuve must cross. Unlike Montoya, who was able to make the adjustment with a competitive team, Bill Davis Racing lags behind the competition in the Cup Series.

Although Dave Blaney has only failed to qualify for two races this season, Jeremy Mayfield has missed 14 of 24 events and earlier this month asked to be released from his contract. Villeneuve would likely fill Mayfield's spot in the BDR lineup, and would face the same qualifying struggles Mayfield did.

And he's yet to even drive a stock car. Villeneuve's two-day test at Chicagoland Speedway was in a truck, his first time ever in any sort of NASCAR vehicle.

"It was quite different, but at the end of the two days it felt natural," Villeneuve said. "It takes some getting used to, but it was good."

Montoya said Villeneuve will have to show extreme patience during the adjustment period.

"There's going to be good, bad and evil races - especially at the beginning," Montoya said. "At the beginning you've got to give a lot and see how people run and you'll learn. People at the beginning don't give you too much room and then when they see you give your room, they'll give you room and it works pretty good."

Although Montoya has rankled opponents this season with aggressive driving, Villeneuve isn't afraid of automatic reprisal against the newest F1 defector. He said their styles are so different, competitors must judge them independently.

But he still expects a little hazing.

"No matter what you're driving, nobody likes the new boy," Villeneuve said. "Any time anybody got into F1, we didn't like it, and we made their life hard. "But (Montoya) was like that in Formula 1, extremely aggressive and got on people's nerves. I guess he kept the same personality going into NASCAR, which once he settles in, it will be all right.

"But I've never been as aggressive as him, I would say. But at the same time, NASCAR is a different ball game. So if and when I get in there, I'll figure it out."