Villeneuve adds Daytona 500 start to storied racing career

Published 11:11 pm Wednesday, February 16, 2022

By Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.  — Jacques Villeneuve qualified for his first Daytona 500 then jogged down pit road anxiously searching for his team and a celebration.

The 50-year-old former Formula One champion and Indianapolis 500 winner found his partner and lifted her in the air, then he hugged his crew members. His Ford had needed three tries to pass NASCAR inspection and just hours before Wednesday night’s time trials, Villeneuve had written off his chances in the first round of qualifying.

“I really thought we could not get in on time, so this is the biggest surprise,” Villeneuve said as qualifying continued around him. “I was convinced we didn’t have (the speed). I wasn’t stressed because I didn’t think we’d get in anyway.”

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.

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.

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, 50, 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.

The final two open spots will be filled in tonight’s duel qualifying races.