Villeneuve: Making Daytona 500 grid only topped by F1 and Indy victories

One-time Formula 1 world champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve says qualifying on merit for the Daytona 500 “ranks right after these big wins” at the age of 50.

Villeneuve: Making Daytona 500 grid only topped by F1 and Indy victories

Villeneuve, who won the F1 title in 1997 two years after his 1995 Indy 500 victory, ensured himself of a starting spot in NASCAR's biggest race of the season on Sunday in qualifying on Wednesday night.

Driving the #27 Hezeberg Ford Mustang, the Canadian takes one of the four non-charter spots on the grid, with Beard Motorsports’ Noah Gragson also locking himself in via time trials. 

Greg Biffle, Kaz Grala, Timmy Hill and J.J. Yeley will battle for the two remaining spots in the field for non-charter teams in Thursday night’s Duel races.

It will be Villeneuve's first NASCAR Cup start since 2013 and his debut in the Daytona 500, having failed to qualify at his last attempt in 2008 in a Bill Davis Racing Toyota.

When asked how his achievement ranked in his career, Villeneuve replied: “Super high. Obviously, it’s not a win.

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“It’s not like winning the Indy 500 or the F1 championship, but at this point in my career the last time I tried to qualify here was 14 years ago, just to make the show is incredible because it’s a small team. 

“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 these big wins.

“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 realise that I’m 50, which is good.

“As long as it carries on like this, I can’t imagine myself stopping racing.”

Jacques Villeneuve, Team Hezeberg, Ford Mustang Hezeberg Engineering Systems

Jacques Villeneuve, Team Hezeberg, Ford Mustang Hezeberg Engineering Systems

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

Villeneuve said that some people had written him off as a professional driver, but a brace of wins in the European NASCAR series at Vallelunga last year had proved he still had what it takes.

“It’s satisfying and amazing because there’s quite a few times where I’ve been hearing, ‘OK, come on, you’re past it, just give it up,’” he said.

“The hunger has never stopped and experience is only a big help 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.

“Until that moment experience is only a benefit.”

Villeneuve, who is driving the car part-time until Team Hezeberg’s primary driver Loris Hezemans gains enough experience to race at the bigger NASCAR tracks, didn’t expect to qualify on speed and was concerned that he might not be able to race his way in via today’s Duel race.

His last attempt to qualify via the Duels in 2008 ended in a multi-car crash involving four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray and Hollywood stuntman Stanton Barrett.

“I was convinced we didn’t have the speed to get in on time, and I thought we would then have to fight it through the Duels,” he admitted.

“Somehow the car was a lot easier to drive. It was easy to be smooth because we got in by not a lot. 

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“It was very, very close. It was all a matter of getting right up to speed coming out of Turn 2, going through the gears, getting away from the wall to not block the air, just getting these extra few revs and that made the difference.”

The team is run by Toine Hezemans and businessman Ernst Berg, with technical support from Reaume Bros Racing. If the team gets a strong result on Sunday, it could mean an increased programme in the Cup Series, as it is not expected to appear at every round.

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