Jacques Villeneuve was in the driver’s seat heading to the white flag, more than 20 car lengths ahead and his first victory in NASCAR just a lap away on the track named for his dad.
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Then, in the blink of an eye, Justin Allgaier bumped past him for the victory Saturday in a Nationwide race as a stunned crowd at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve recoiled in disbelief.
”It’s tough when you have a driver who has his last name on the race track,” Allgaier said after his second victory of the season and third of his career. ”Obviously, this is a big race for him and a big venue.”
Having maintained the top spot through restart after restart in the final laps of a race that went seven extra circuits around the 14-turn, 2.7-mile layout, Villeneuve was running low on fuel and kept turning off the engine of his No. 22 Dodge to conserve.
What seemed like an insurmountable lead vanished on the last lap. Allgaier closed in a hurry as Villeneuve suddenly slowed and was hit from behind.
”I don’t know if he went into protect mode,” Allgaier said. ”We knew he was going to be close on gas. My first thought was he was out. I had too much steam running my normal pace, and we got together. I’m sure he’s not happy about that, but I know that the 30 (polesitter Alex Tagliani) got taken out by that car. I guess at the end of the day what goes around comes around.”
Villeneuve should know. He took out Danica Patrick at Road America on the final lap in June, depriving her of a top-five finish, and bumped Tagliani, a Montreal native, out of the lead late in Saturday’s race. Tagliani finished 22nd.
”We got together,” Villeneuve said. ”He was really slow and just blocking, braking on the inside and the guys behind me were catching me. We tangled a little bit and I thought it would be all right. I didn’t get off the gas because I didn’t want the cars behind me to catch me, and I ended up turning him around.
”That’s a shame for him. That wasn’t my intention, but at that point I couldn’t just stay behind him.”
Villeneuve, who started third, survived three late restarts in a wild race that saw Patrick lead 20 laps.
”We were the quickest car out there,” said Villeneuve, who led 43 laps. ”When you run in the front all day and get taken out on the last lap, it’s just frustrating. I guess that’s life. When it’s a mistake, you let it go, but when it seems to be done on purpose, that gets a little bit annoying.”
Sam Hornish Jr. finished second and Villeneuve was third, giving Dodge two in the top three. Elliott Sadler and Ron Fellows rounded out the top five. Hornish’s finish put him in a tie for second in Nationwide points with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was strong with the laps winding down but spun out challenging for the lead and finished 12th.
Kyle Busch, who flew in from the Cup race in Michigan to drive his No. 54 Toyota, arrived about 2 hours before the green flag, started at the back of the field because of a driver change — Owen Kelly qualified fifth for Busch on Friday — and finished 10th after briefly challenging Villeneuve for the lead with 20 laps left.
Patrick also ran second to Villeneuve for another 12 laps before she suffered a broken rear axle after her No. 7 Chevy hit a shoe thrown on the track while she was tracking Villeneuve in her rearview mirror. She finished 27th.
”How disappointing! What can I say?” Patrick said. ”We’ve got to get some luck sometime. At the end of the day, I just can’t believe how unlucky we’ve been. It’s got to come.”
Villeneuve had regained the lead by spinning Tagliani around on lap 67 of the race, which was scheduled to go 74. Tagliani had passed both Villeneuve and Hornish for the lead with an aggressive move in the first turn, with Hornish sliding off course after heavy contact with Michael McDowell. After Hornish recovered, he and Patrick collided after Kyle Kelley spun Patrick.
Villeneuve then built a lead that seemed insurmountable but eventually was done in by the flurry of late cautions. He ran out of fuel driving to the pits, stopping briefly by Allgaier’s No. 31 Chevy to express his frustration.
For Allgaier, it was a lesson learned. He was concerned about crew chief Jimmy Elledge’s pit strategy — Allgaier had plenty of fuel because Elledge was counting on extra laps at the end and planned accordingly — and figured he was running for second until that final lap.
”The only way he (Villeneuve) was going to lose the race was by doing what he did, not pushing the car and slowing down,” Allgaier said. ”I had conceded the fact that I knew we were probably going to finish second.
”For whatever reason, he just went into protect mode and slowed down so much that I caught him in a bad spot. Where I caught him, to try to block somebody there, you’re a sitting duck.”