Villeneuve following Montoya's footsteps into NASCAR

Jacques Villeneuve could hardly have created a stranger setting for his return to racing.

Here's an accomplished driver who has competed at racing's most hallowed cathedrals in its most sophisticated machines, from Formula One cars on the streets of Monaco and the Nurburgring to CART at Indianapolis and Long Beach. He drank the milk at Indy and earned the crown of F1 world champion.

Here's that same guy, testing a stock car disguised as a pickup truck on an unspectacular 1.5-mile oval in Joliet, Ill.

Back home in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, they might have asked Villeneuve: Qu'est-ce que c'est? What is this?

Try just the next step in a motorsports career.

"Ten years ago I wouldn't have imagined it -- my sights were set on F1 and were going to be set on F1 for quite a long time," Villeneuve said. "But once you get in F1 and start winning, you start looking around for what else would be challenging. The only answer was NASCAR."

Like Juan Pablo Montoya, another world-class driver with an Indy 500 and F1 wins on his résumé, Villeneuve is making a hard-turn career change into the distinctly American world of NASCAR. The first step came Monday and Tuesday at Chicagoland Speedway, testing a Toyota Tundra for Bill Davis Racing.

The plan is for Villeneuve to race the Tundra next month at the Craftsman Truck Series race in Las Vegas, running the final seven races of the schedule in BDR's third truck (replacing rookie Ryan Mathews). Throw in an ARCA race at Talladega Superspeedway and all the remaining COT tests this season, and Villeneuve hopes to have enough of a knowledge base to take on Sprint Cup racing next year.

Crazy, huh? Not anymore, not in today's motorsports hierarchy.

"After F1, when you want to carry on racing, you want it to be at a tough level," Villeneuve said. "And in North America, the top level is NASCAR."

Villeneuve, 36, raced CART in 1994-95, winning the series title and the Indy 500 in 1995, the last year before the American open-wheel split. In 1996 he joined the acclaimed Williams F1 team, finishing second in his first race (a feat not duplicated until Lewis Hamilton this year) and going on to win four races as the series' runner-up. In his sophomore F1 year, 1997, he won seven times and claimed the title.

That was the end of his F1 dominance. One year after his championship he could muster only two podium finishes in underpowered cars, then switched teams for 1999. He would go on to drive for three different teams through 2006, bowing out when his BMW team's owner refused to guarantee Villeneuve's return after he crashed in Germany and had to miss a race.

Outside of taking a turn for Team Peugeot Total at the 24 Hours of LeMans in June, Villeneuve stayed away from racing, staying home in Quebec as a father, restaurateur and musician, releasing an album in 2007 called "Private Paradise." It was a longtime dream, but it wasn't racing.

"The music aspect, it's not a competition," Villeneuve said. "It's different than racing, I've been racing for 17 years. It's definitely in my blood."

Wanting to get back into the sport, Villeneuve dispatched his manager into the NASCAR garage, where he found Bill Davis, owner of a dominant truck series team and a Cup team looking for an identity and stability.

Seeing what Montoya, a Colombian, brought to Chip Ganassi Racing -- worldwide attention and first-year success on the track with wins at the Busch and Cup level -- Davis became willing to take a chance with Villeneuve.

"To me, he's a guy whose credentials speak for themselves. I guess 'Why not?' would be my answer," Davis said. "When Montoya came, we all knew he had all the talent in the world and would be successful down here, but most of us probably thought he'd also have some struggles here and there. He really hasn't, he's just adapted to the car so well. It certainly made it easier to consider [Villeneuve].

"Obviously he's very popular in Canada -- that's a given -- and he's popular in Europe. I would hope it will bring a lot of attention to our team and our company. Help in the sponsorship search is critical these days."

Preliminary results show Villeneuve adapting to the new style of racing. Driving a truck whose only familiar quality was its No. 27 (Villeneuve's CART number and the number his late legendary father, Gilles, drove in F1) was unusual at first. Villeneuve found himself overcompensating in the turns while getting used to the feel of a 3,400-pound stock car after years of piloting 1,300-pound F1 rockets -- not to mention this was his first trip around an oval track in over a decade. But by the end of Monday's session, he was clocking laps two-tenths of a second behind Mike Skinner, the 1995 truck champion and current points leader.

"It felt great. With the banking and the high speed, it doesn't feel that heavy. It's like a proper race car once you get in the groove," Villeneuve said. "It actually was a lot of fun."

Villeneuve gave feedback to the team and took advice from soon-to-be teammate Skinner, continuing the adapting process in the garage.

"He was very open. It was great," Villeneuve said. "It was a nice change from F1. In F1 you keep everything hidden and keep it to yourself. It's really a world upside-down."

So is this: an F1 champion turned NASCAR rookie.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.