Thursday, February 17, 2022

CUP: Throttle cable issue stops Jacques Villeneuve, who still makes first 500 start on Sunday

ALL PHOTOS: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

Jacques Villeneuve finished last in Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel Race 2 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #27 Hezeberg Engineering Systems Ford fell out with electrical issues after 34 of 60 laps.

The last time NASCAR made such a significant change to the chassis for the Cup Series was in 2007, when the “Car of Tomorrow” was phased in for 16 of the season’s 36 races. Among those 16 races was the fall race at Talladega, the car’s superspeedway debut in anticipation of the Daytona 500. It was in this race that Villeneuve made his Cup debut, though not without controversy. 

At the time, NASCAR’s “open-wheel invasion” had barely begun with Juan Pablo Montoya closing out his impressive rookie season with Chip Ganassi Racing. Villeneuve’s racing resume was already just as impressive, if not more so – a champion of both IndyCar and Formula One. But many still argued that Villeneuve simply wasn’t ready to run at Talladega, especially in a new car during the championship playoffs, and with just two NASCAR starts in the Truck Series. Unphased, Villeneuve qualified 6th on the grid in Bill Davis Racing’s #27 Toyota, sponsored by the UNICEF foundation. He dropped to the tail end of the field on race day, kept his nose clean, and brought the car home in one piece, taking a solid 21st. 

The following February, Villeneuve and Davis would attempt to qualify for the 50th Daytona 500. At the time, the open-wheel contingent included not only Montoya and fellow rookie contender A.J. Allmendinger, but Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier. During Duel Race 2, Villeneuve was in a tight battle for 15th when he lost control in Turns 3 and 4, triggering a multi-car wreck that took both himself and Stanton Barrett out of the 500 field. In the 14 years since, Villeneuve would dabble in each of NASCAR’s divisions – most recently the Whelen Euro Series – but didn’t attempt another Cup race after 2013. He also hadn’t entered a Daytona 500 since that day in 2008.

This past offseason, one of the first new teams to spring up was Team Hezeberg Powered by the Reaume Brothers. A combined effort between Truck Series owner-driver Josh Reaume and the Hezeberg Systems firm out of the Netherlands, the team elected to run road courses and short tracks with both Loris Hezemans from the Whelen Euro Series and a returning Jacques Villeneuve. It wasn’t until much later that the team decided to add the Daytona 500 to their schedule, and tabbed Villeneuve to drive. Just as in 2008, the car number would be 27.

Villeneuve started off just 40th of the 42 entrants in opening practice and dropped to 41st in the second session, raising concerns the team would be able to make the show with such limited experience on ovals. In qualifying, Villeneuve drew the 16th spot – second to Greg Biffle’s #44 Grambling State University Chevrolet from the NY Racing Team among the “open” drivers. There, another surprise - he put up a lap faster than Biffle’s – 176.436mph (51.010 seconds), which stood as the fastest lap by an “open” team until Noah Gragson bested him by three spots. Gragson’s lap made no difference, however, as Villeneuve had locked himself into his first Daytona 500 field on speed. He’d roll off 18th in Duel Race 2 on Thursday.

The 21st and last spot in Race 2 belonged to Timmy Hill, who moments earlier had seen his Motorsports Business Management teammate J.J. Yeley come just over a half-lap short of racing into the Daytona 500 field. Hill faced an even stiffer challenge as his #66 Ford was slowest overall in Wednesday qualifying. Like his teammate, Hill ended up with the worst pit stall – the only one flanked by teams on either side. While Hill had raced one of MBM’s cars into the 500 just two years earlier – ironically by beating Yeley – this time around wouldn’t turn out so favorably.

Villeneuve with the hood up before the start.

But as the field rolled off pit road, Hill did pass another car – Villeneuve’s. After the command to start engines, the driver reported an issue under the hood, and the crew pushed him to a pit stall. Josh Reaume, the team’s co-owner, urged caution to his crew. “Please do not break my hood pins,” he said. “Let’s do this nice and slow.” As the crew discovered what turned out to be a faulty throttle cable, there were discussions about whether they needed to even start the race, since they were already locked in. “We need to take the start, okay?” was the answer. The crew dropped the hood, and instructed Villeneuve to take it easy with the throttle. “I need you to make one lap,” he was told. The team would later attempt relay messages by Channel 2 on the radio, then by phone. “Tommy, check your phone for me, bud,” someone said on the radio on Lap 4.

When the race started, Villeneuve was on the outside of the final row and - like Noah Gragson in Race 1 - dropping fast. He was 2.035 seconds back of the lead at the stripe, then 2.475 at the end of Lap 1, 1.391 seconds back of 20th-place David Ragan in Rick Ware Racing’s #15 Select Blinds Ford. Villeneuve asked about a minimum speed, and was only told “We’re fine.” By Lap 7, he was already being instructed to pull to the high lane when the leaders caught him, which happened on Lap 12. Timmy Hill lost his first lap three circuits later in Turns 3 and 4.

With their car well past completing just one lap, the crew continued to check with their driver. “How’s your water temperature right now?” they asked on Lap 19. “178” was the answer. On Lap 23, Villeneuve caught and Hill, putting the #66 back to last for the first time since the command. Each were shown two laps down on Lap 34, when Villeneuve was caught speeding on pit road in Sections 11 and 12, forcing a pass-through. Five laps later, the #27 was back on pit road, then pushed backwards behind the wall. The crew reported their driver was running 68% throttle to save the cable, and would finish diagnosing the issue in final practice.

Villeneuve will start 40th and last in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Timmy Hill joined his teammate on the short list of DNQs, finishing 20th, four laps down. Despite running out of fuel in the final laps, Greg Biffle and the NY Racing Team took the final spot in the field with a 13th-place run. Ragan finished 17th, just ahead of Aric Almirola in the #10 Smithfield Ford and Austin Dillon in the #3 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker Off Road Chevrolet.

*This marked only the second time the #27 finished last in either of the Duel races at Daytona. The other time was on February 14, 1985, when Tim Richmond’s #27 Old Milwaukee Pontiac lost an engine after 3 laps of Race 1.

21) #27-Jacques Villeneuve / 34 laps / electrical
20) #66-Timmy Hill / 56 laps / running
19) #10-Aric Almirola / 58 laps / running
18) #3-Austin Dillon / 58 laps / running
17) #15-David Ragan / 58 laps / running

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