The NASCAR Nationwide circus returns to Montreal this weekend for its sixth visit to the challenging Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and, as usual, the field will be packed with Canadian road racing talent, including local favourites Patrick Carpentier, Alex Tagliani, Jacques Villeneuve and Mississauga, Ont. interloper Ron Fellows.
Of the local boys, both Carpentier and Tagliani will be looking for a win after having finished second in previous Nationwide races on the 13-turn, 4.361 track. Carpentier ended the first year of the Napa 200 as the runner-up to Kevin Harvick in 2007, while Tagliani finished second last year to winner Marcos Ambrose.
After retiring from racing – for the second time – in 2011, Carpentier may need to shake off a bit of rust in Friday practice before qualifying late in the afternoon. Carpentier, who has not raced since last year's Nationwide tilt in Montreal, would also like to erase the disappointment of not winning at home when he had the chance.
"I still think about that race and maybe I should have pushed Kevin [Harvick] a little bit harder in the hairpin, but he was hard to beat," Carpentier said.
"Hopefully, we get back there because I think in the past few years we had the car to do it and it's a track I feel pretty good on, so hopefully we will see the same thing this year."
On final lap of the inaugural Napa 200 in 2007, Carpentier dogged eventual winner Harvick on the final lap looking for a way around. Most felt Carpentier would have won had he used a bump-and-run tactic to jostle Harvick out of the lead in the tight hairpin turn two corners from the finish line, but he instead chose to avoid any contact and finished second on his rival's bumper. After the race, Carpentier said he preferred to race clean and finish second rather than win dirty.
Although mostly focusing on his real estate business in Las Vegas these days, Carpentier came out of retirement to race in Montreal to raise money for the city's Children's Hospital as a "thank you" to the staff that cared for his sick daughter a few years ago.
For his part, Tagliani thinks he and Carpentier will likely be battling the usual road racing experts for the win in Montreal – [Sprint Cup driver] Malcolm McDowell, Fellows and Villeneuve. He also thinks it won't be as easy to count out many of the Nationwide regulars as it once was.
"With the chance to race with guys like Ron Fellows, [road racing ringer] Boris Said and so on and so forth, the [Nationwide] guys are starting to learn," said Tagliani, who will also drive both Starworks Riley Ford Daytona Prototypes in the Grand-American Montreal 200 race on Saturday morning.
"The discrepancy before was bigger, but I think it [is now] way, way tighter. We've seen guys last year running pretty strongly until the end and, surprisingly, it's very competitive now."
In addition to the road course "ringer" drivers, the field will also feature Sprint Cup regular Kyle Busch, who may be looking to snatch a road course win to make up for losing the victory on the final lap last weekend at Watkins Glen International in New York. Another threat is Penske driver Sam Hornish, Jr. who also ran well at The Glen in both the Cup and Nationwide races.
While his two Quebec compatriots look to climb one step higher in Saturday's race, Villeneuve will likely need to keep one eye peeled for the unmistakeable bright green car of Danica Patrick. The No. 7 Chevy driver has a wreck in her pocket with Villeneuve's name on it after he spun her out of fourth place on the final lap of the June race at Road America. She ended the day 12th.
Villeneuve sparked a bit of a controversy when he jumped from his car at Road America and immediately told a television reporter that he didn't care that he put Patrick into a gravel trap on the final lap.
Two months later, it's all ancient history for the No. 22 Dodge driver, who will be looking to make his fans forget about last year's race when he seemed to be contender until he crashed into leader Marcos Ambrose on a late restart and ended the day 27th.
"I always enjoy racing in front of the Montreal crowd, and it's going to be super tough and competitive as ever," he said.
"We were quick around here last year with Penske Racing and we'll definitely be looking to convert that into a solid result on Saturday. With only two races on the calendar for me this year, we have to make this one count. I would like very much to deliver a strong performance for myself and for the team."
Although the Road America incident is long forgotten for Villeneuve, most feel that Patrick's memory may be slightly more vivid.
Her teammate at JR Motorsport, Fellows, hopes to take his second win in Montreal after coming home fifth in last week's Nationwide race at The Glen, just ahead of Busch. Fellows, who took a rain-shortened victory in Montreal in 2008, hopes he can fend off the Quebec contingent and deliver win No. 2.
"I'm sort of the lone wolf from Ontario," he said. "I'll do my best to maybe interrupt the celebrations there a little bit."
After making a couple of disparaging comments about French drivers not taking off their helmets to fight following altercations with Tagliani and Sebastian Bourdais in the 2006 Champ Car season, Paul Tracy stoked the fire by showing up for the series' race in Montreal sporting a blue wrestler's costume and mask, as well as a Quebec flag as a cape.
He taunted the crowd wearing the costume in the driver parade, and played up the rivalry with the French drivers, who also fuelled the fire by asking the fans to boo the Scarborough, Ont. driver in Montreal before the race weekend.
More than six years later, Tracy left the costume at home as he arrived in Montreal for his debut in a Grand-Am Daytona Prototype driving the No. 5 Corvette with teammate David Donohue.
"I'm excited to come back to Montreal and race," Tracy said. "Obviously, it's not Toronto or Edmonton. Alex [Tagliani] will have the lion's share of the fans, and I'm sure I'll have some guys in the stand who want to come and maybe try to beat me up a little bit."
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