Ron Fellows is the first to admit that his two NASCAR starts this year may be his last chance to add an elusive Sprint Cup victory to his career tally.
While the 53-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., “isn’t getting any younger,” Fellows feels confident he has a car that can match the top teams this time around, something that should put a win in NASCAR’s top tier within his reach in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at California’s Sonoma Raceway.
“I feel like it’s a pretty good opportunity and one that I haven’t had for a few years in Sprint Cup,” he said.
“I don’t know how many more of these opportunities I am going to have. This might be it, who knows? To be honest, I have stopped thinking about a win – if it’s to be, it will be and, if not, what do you do? It would obviously be a fantastic thing; it’s the one missing piece in my career.”
In his career, Fellows has won his class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice, in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, and twice in the 12 Hours of Sebring. He also scored three class championships in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), along with victories in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series. Always a fan favourite, he was voted most popular driver in ALMS several times.
Supported by Canadian Tire, Fellows will drive the No. 33 Circle Sport Chevrolet in the two NASCAR Sprint Cup road course events this season.
After Sonoma, Fellows’ second chance at a Cup win in 2013 happens Aug. 11 at the Watkins Glen International Raceway. A victory in either one of his two Cup starts this year would make him only the 24th driver to win a NASCAR race in Trucks, Nationwide and Cup.
The two-race deal continues a long-standing relationship Fellows enjoys with retailing giant, which is also the title sponsor of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park that the driver co-owns. The No. 33 is also backed by Texas-based AER Manufacturing, which has been associated with Fellows for several years in NASCAR.
One of the deciding factors for Fellows was that the Circle Sport team gets its cars and engines from NASCAR powerhouse Richard Childress Racing, along with some engineering support. That situation makes Fellows feel he’ll be a contender as soon as the car is pushed off the hauler.
Although it will be Fellows’ first race in the new Generation-6 car introduced this year, he has already driven it twice in testing. He put the No. 33 through its paces in early June with the team at Sonoma and also got a call from Tony Stewart to test his road course car in late May at the Road Atlanta track. Fellows will also get a chance to take the car for a spin in Watkins Glen before the race there.
“The opportunity to test at Sonoma and Watkins Glen will certainly help us – I think we will show up and be relatively competitive,” Fellows said.
“The test went well, although when you are the only car there is it tough to tell. Testing Tony’s car definitely helped me and I hope it helped them too.”
And because Sonoma is the first road course races for the new Gen-6 car, Fellows won’t be at a huge disadvantage to the Cup regulars, who won’t have any added experience driving it on a road course. In fact, the veteran road racer just might be one of the first to figure out how to make the new car quick around the 12-turn, 4.06 kilometre circuit.
“I certainly hope so,” Fellows said with a chuckle.
“There are only two 90-minute practice sessions and they go by pretty quickly – so, there’s not a lot of time to dial in the car.”
Should things not work out in Sonoma, there’s no doubt that The Glen will be another good chance for Fellows to take a Cup win, considering his past success there. So far, he has two NASCAR truck series wins in four starts at the New York track and three NASCAR Nationwide victories in 12 races there.
The Glen is also a place where he’s been completely frustrated after seeing Cup wins slip through his fingers a couple of times. One of his greatest performances in his career came at The Glen in 2004 when he started dead last in 43rd spot due a rained out qualifying and put on a passing clinic to end the day second. Only three-time Cup champion Stewart, who started fourth, was able to keep Fellows behind.
While he’s had several good results in New York State, his nearest miss in Cup actually came in Sonoma in 2003 where he controlled the race from the front late in the action but ended up finishing seventh due to an ill-timed yellow flag with about 20 laps to go.
I’ll never forget it,” Fellows sighed.
“We were cruising along in the lead coming up to our last pitstop and waited a little too long to make the stop: A caution came out the lap we were coming in. We went from first to 31st. That’s where I learned that certainly in Sprint Cup, you can be fast and competitive and have great pitstops, but the stars need to be aligned too.”
Whether he adds a Cup race win or not, Fellows will be inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in a ceremony at CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto on Sept. 28, which also happens to be his 54th birthday.
The veteran racer also won’t be flying the Canadian flag alone in California, after 1997 Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve announced Wednesday that he will be driving the No. 51 Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing. It will be Villeneuve’s first road course start in Cup, although he has run several of the races in the second tier Nationwide series, with some anger-inducing results.
At Road America in 2011, Villeneuve irked Max Papis after trying a bold passing move on a late restart which ended with Italian in a wall. In the same race last year, the Canadian punted crowd favourite Danica Patrick out of a top-5 spot on the final lap to earn some jeers.
In the K&N Pro Series West race on Saturday in Sonoma, up-and-coming Canadian Cameron Hayley will be looking for his first win in the No. 24 Ford Fusion since he took the chequered flag in a non-points race during Daytona 500 weekend.
The 16-year-old from Calgary hopes to erase the disappointment of his last K&N road course race at Minnesota’s Brainerd International Raceway in May, where he looked to be a contender for the win until a blown tire ruined his day.
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone