It has been 14 years since one-time Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve felt he had the best cars on the track and a good chance to win a race.
The 40-year-old from Montreal had that feeling again after he and Alex Tagliani of Lachenaie, Que., completed a sweep of the top two grid positions for the Penske Dodge team in qualifying Friday at the NAPA Auto Parts 200 NASCAR Nationwide event.
The teammates will start side by side on the front row for the 74-lap race on Saturday.
Villeneuve said he hasn't had the best car since he edged Michael Schumacher for the F1 title in 1997 with Williams Renault.
“That's a long time ago,” he said with a broad grin. “But memory comes back really fast and that's how it felt all.
“We knew we had prepared the car and we'd be up there fighting. We're still at the Elkhart Lake setup (in June), so you can just relax and concentrate on driving the car well instead of finding gremlins in the car or trying to invent a new setup overnight.”
It was his first pole position in any series since he won 10 of them in 1997.
And now he has a chance to win a race on the track named after his father for the first time since 1993 in the Formula Atlantic series. He was second to teammate Damon Hill in his first attempt in 1996 with Williams, but never came close again in F1.
Villeneuve used his last lap in the last six-car qualifying group to post the best time of one minute 41.8 seconds to grab the pole from Tagliani, whose best was 1:41.935.
It is the first time two Canadians will start at the front for a NASCAR national series event, which includes Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Trucks.
Both were imported by Penske for one of the few road course races in Nationwide, which is one level below Sprint Cup.
Villeneuve is driving the same Discount Tire,/Ruby Tuesday No. 22 Dodge that won the Nationwide title last year and that Kurt Busch used to win last week at Watkins Glen, N.Y. Busch is at the Sprint Cup event this weekend in Michigan.
Tagliani is full time in IndyCars, but the stock car race is special to him as well.
He is driving the Hot Wheels Dodge No. 12, which is the number his childhood idol, Gilles Villeneuve, had when he won the Canadian Grand Prix in F1 on the same track in 1978. Gilles Villeneuve died in a crash at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982.
“Ill just try to make no mistakes because I find it really easy to get into trouble in these cars,” said Tagliani. “It's so easy to overdrive them and make mistakes.
“In qualifying, usually I don't think, I just push. Here, I had to think about where to brake, I was looking at the dash. But we were able to show the Penske cars are fast.”
Jason Leffler was third and Scott Speed fourth, both in Chevrolets.
Patrick Carpentier of Joliette, Que., who is in his final race before retirement, qualified eighth in the NAPA Auto Parts Toyota No. 99. Andrew Ranger of Roxton Pond, Que., was 11th in a Dodge.
Ron Fellows of Toronto, the 2008 winner in the rain, starts on the seventh row in a Canadian Tire Chevrolet. J.R. Fitzpatrick of Cambridge, Ont., is on row 11, and Maryeve Dufault of Sorel, Que., in her first Nationwide race, is on row 20.
Louis-Philippe Dumoulin of Trois-Rivieres, Que., and D.J. Kennington of St. Thomas, Ont., sandwich Victory in Jesus Chevy driver Morgan Shepherd at the back.
The race will get tougher as three Sprint Cup drivers will fly in after Sprint Cup qualifying to join the Nationwide race — the always dangerous Marcos Ambrose as well as Carl Edwards and Trevor Bayne. They will get to the track by helicopter and have less than half an hour to prepare for the race. Reserve drivers filled in for them at qualifying.
In qualifying for the NASCAR Canadian Tire series, Ranger won pole position and Tagliani was second. Former NHL defenceman Patrice Brisebois was 21st.
In a Canadian Touring Car Championship race, NHL defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron finished 20th, which was last among the cars that finished. He drove in the Super category for his own team called MASIF 47.
Bergeron, who co-owns the Dumoulin racing team, emerged from his car healthy, although his back bumper was bashed in.
It was 30-year-old Bergeron's third CTCC race this year after an 18th place at Mosport near Toronto and after failing to finish in his home town of Trois-Rivieres due to radiator damage.
Bob Attrell of Brampton, Ont., won the 14-lap race with Scott Nichol of Barrie, Ont., second and Etienne Borgeat of Montreal third.