August 18, 2011
Danica steals spotlight from Villeneuve
By DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency
MONTREAL - In the world of professional sports fame can be a cruel and all too fleeting mistress.
Take Jacques Villeneuve, this country’s only Formula One world champion and Indianapolis 500 winner.
There he stood on Thursday in the lobby of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in his home town, playing second fiddle to Danica Patrick, owner of one career win in the IZOD IndyCar Series and none in NASCAR.
The 29-year-old Patrick was clearly the star of the afternoon dog and pony show put on to promote Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series NAPA 200 at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
In that race, Patrick will be driving the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet — owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. — and Villeneuve will be driving Roger Penske’s No. 22 Dodge.
Villeneuve is very much among the favourites — if not a clear No. 1 choice — to win on Saturday at the track named for his late father.
The No. 22 Dodge team won last season’s Nationwide championship — with Brad Keselowski behind the wheel — and Villeneuve came close to winning at Road America eight weeks ago in the same car.
Kurt Busch drove that race car to Victory Lane last week in the ZIPPO 200 at Watkins Glen International.
For Patrick, on the other hand, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve will be her first experience driving a Nationwide car on a road course.
Her only previous bout of turning left and right in a stock car was when she spent a day of testing a week ago with Toronto’s Ron Fellows as a tutor at Road Atlanta. Fellows, by the way, will be her JRM teammate in Montreal.
The experience and expectations that Patrick and Villenuve bring to the track on Saturday, however, didn’t mean a tinker’s damn to the media gathered Thursday.
It was all about whether Patrick will finally abandon the IndyCar series and make the switch, full-time, to NASCAR next season.
It is a story that has played out — over and over and over again — since her initial foray into NASCAR in 2010.
And from that first ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway it was clear where Patrick was headed.
Now 18 months later, it will be made official next week in Phoenix, home of her primary sponsor GoDaddy.com, that Patrick will race a full NASCAR Nationwide schedule in 2012 for JRM, with a few selected Sprint Cup races with Stewart Haas Racing.
The latter deal is said to be a preliminary step to her teaming up with her pal Tony Stewart full-time in Cup in 2013.
Patrick is 12th in the IndyCar Series standings after last Sunday’s race in New Hampshire, and she is in the final year of her contract with Andretti Autosport.
There had been reports that Patrick would continue to run the Indianapolis 500 alongside her NASCAR deal, but her JRM contract would have her racing three times in the month of May next season, giving her precious little time to practise and qualify at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Although she gave her stock answer — “No matter what you read or see in the media about my plans for next season, I can tell you that a final decision has not yet been made” — everybody is in agreement she will announce her NASCAR contract on Wednesday.
As for IndyCar losing its brightest star over most of the past decade, series boss Randy Bernard doesn’t seem too concerned.
“I wish her well,” Bernard told ESPN’s John Oreovicz. “We would love for her to stay, but my job is to build the IndyCar Series with the drivers that are here. I’m very excited about the opportunity because I don’t believe our ratings or our attendance will decrease without her.”
Villeneuve’s Penske Racing teammate on Saturday — IndyCar regular Alex Tagliani — unveiled his No. 12 Hot Wheels Dodge on Thursday ... Much-respected IndyCar engineer Michael Cannon has quit as Tony Kanaan’s KV Racing Technology engineer because of a personality clash with the Brazilian driver. “The two of us, we didn’t gel,” Cannon said ... NASCAR Canadian Tire Series champion D.J. Kennnington will do double duty Saturday after signing a deal to race in the Nationwide NAPA 200 in the No. 13 Dodge of Jennifer Jo Cobbs.