It was an impressive day on the track for a quartet of Canadian drivers on Friday at the NAPA Auto Parts 200 in Montreal.
Patrick Carpentier, Jacques Villeneuve, Ron Fellows and Andrew Ranger were all among the quickest cars in a pair of practice sessions at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and will be in choice spots during qualifying on Saturday.
The 74-lap Nationwide Series race will be held after qualifying.
Each of the four has his own reasons to want to do well in the only Canadian stop on the Nationwide schedule, besides pleasing the expected crowd of more than 60,000 in the grandstands.
Carpentier launched his NASCAR career at the inaugural Montreal race a year ago when, less than a week after his first spin in stock car, he won pole position and then finished second in the race to Kevin Harvick.
That helped him snag a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup, the series one step higher than Nationwide, with the Gillett Evernham team that is owned by Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett.
"I think it will be harder this year," the 37-year-old from Joliette, Que., cautioned. "Last year, nobody knew what the track looked like.
"They'll be a lot more ready this year. What we did last year was unbelievable. It was a dream come true. The only thing I'd like this year, and it's not much, is just to finish one spot higher."
Most of the NASCAR circuit is raced on ovals, with only a few road races like this one and next week's event at Watkins Glen, N.Y., thrown in. In many cases, the top oval drivers turn their cars over to road racing specialists for events like Montreal.
That helped Villeneuve, who finally put a sponsorship package together to get a one-off ride in the No. 32 Ganotec Toyota Camry.
Jacques still looking for support
It seems remarkable that the colourful 1997 Formula One champion has struggled to find sponsors for a full-time race in NASCAR.
This year, he dropped long-time manager Craig Pollock and hooked up with American racing stalwart Barry Green to help land the backing he needs.
"I'm sure that if I'd tried to do this in 1998 just after winning the championship it would have been a lot easier," the 37-year-old Montreal driver said. "That's logical. "Although there's a lot of respect for what I've achieved, my oval experience is not huge and even though there was the Indy 500 win [in 1995], ultimately, what people want to know is how you'd do in a 36-race season, how you do on the ovals and are you still hungry enough to do it?"
Villeneuve feels that even if he matched Carpentier's feat of a year ago, there would still be work to do in landing a NASCAR ride.
"A good showing would help with the sponsors, but it won't have any effect on the teams because this is a road course," he said. "What matters to the teams are ovals."
Fellows is a racing veteran for Chevrolet known best for his annual battles in a Corvette at the Le Mans 24 Hour race. He steps into the JR Motorsports No. 5 car for NASCAR road races.
Pileup took away Canadian's chance
Fellows was among the leaders at last year's race when a pileup initiated by Harvick ended his and a handful of other drivers' victory hopes.
"We're here to try to win," said the Toronto driver. "We had a good race last year, but you can tell the level of competition has stepped up.
"I'm confident. We've got a good crew here, and a good car.
"Unfortunately, most NASCAR races are like the last two minutes of overtime in hockey. It gets out of control. If there's a caution with 10 minutes to go, cautions breed cautions, there's going to be a lot of contact. That's what caught us out last year. We need to avoid that."
The 21-year-old Ranger is the one who hopes to repeat what Carpentier did last year and will be driving the same No. 22 Dodge that Carpentier used.
The Roxton Pond, Que., native is racing in the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series, which he won in 2007, and dreams of moving up to Nationwide and eventually to the Sprint Cup series.
Pruett finds the groove
Former open wheel racer Scott Pruett had the quickest lap of the day in a morning session run in cool, overcast weather, but the five-car groupings for qualifying were based on times from the second practice session, when hot, sunny conditions loosened tire grip on the track and slowed lap times.
The best lap was initially given to Steve Wallace, but it was annulled because the American cut a corner on his quick lap.
Marcos Ambrose was quickest in the afternoon in his STP Ford at one minute 43.165 seconds on the 2.7-mile track, or nearly 30 seconds per lap slower than Formula One cars with their sophisticated braking systems at the Canadian Grand Prix in June.
He was followed by Max Papis, Pruett and Carpentier. Boris Said was fifth, with Villeneuve sixth, Fellows seventh and Ranger Eighth.
Max tabs Patrick
Papis, a former CART and IRL driver, picked Carpentier to win.
"I really feel that Patrick has an advantage," said Papis. "He is an amazing road course racer and he's been driving this thing since January.
"So if he was strong last year, he should be even stronger."
D.J. Kennington of St. Thomas, Ont., another Canadian Tire Series regular, was 20th in the afternoon practice. Scott Steckly of Milverton, Ont., the current Canadian Tire leader, was 37th.
Wheeler Boys, of Calgary, was 41st and his father, Trevor, was 43rd.
A danger for Saturday is a forecast of rain, which would erase most of the little grip the cars already have and would almost certainly lead to a run of incidents.
The race is expected to go on unless there is a serious storm, in which case, it could be run Sunday morning.