For a large part of the NAPA Auto Parts 200 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, it appeared that former F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve was on his way to victory lane. He led for over half the race and was rarely out of contention for long, even when an ill-timed early caution sent him tumbling out of the top ten for a period.
But as the ending approached, the hitherto orderly race became a frenzy of hot-headed overtaking moves that included Villeneuve apparently deliberately spinning his compatriot Alex Tagliani out of the lead and then set up two attempts at green-white-chequered overtime finish that had everyone stretching their fuel to the limit.
When Villeneuve's car appeared to stutter after the white flag, Justin Allgaier took his chance to bump the #22 out of the way and to drive away with the race win, leaving a seething Villeneuve to signal his unhappiness as he came across the line in third place behind Sam Hornish Jr.
The early stage of the race had been a relatively sedate affair mostly focussed on differing pit stop strategies and everyone having to focus hard on hitting their fuel numbers. That resulted in the sight of a lot of the Nationwide regulars - Elliott Sadler, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. among them - all making very early stops for fuel in the opening minutes. Kyle Busch was another to come in early, having already had to start toward the back of the field after missing qualifying on Friday because of taking part in the Sprint Cup session in Michigan.
Another car in prematurely was that of the polesitter Alex Tagliani, who had suffered some front end damage after running into the back of Sam Hornish Jr. on lap 3 while briefly running in second. Hornish briefly took over the lead spot but it was clear that he didn't have the pace to stay in front of the Penske Racing car driven by Jacques Villeneuve, who took over control of the race on lap 8; Hornish also succumbed to Danica Patrick's overtaking moved three laps later and dropped back to third.
Patrick was the first of the remaining leaders to blink and come onto pit road for her first stop on lap 19, making it look touch-and-go whether she would be able to make it the rest of the way on just one more stop. However, the timing ended up being a major stroke of luck for the #7, as the first caution of the day came out while she was still in the pits because of a spin and stall for Dexter Stacy.
This was bad news for Villeneuve and Hornish: it was still slightly too early for comfort for them to make it all the way on their two-stop strategy, but they had little choice other than to take advantage of the yellow even though it would drop them behind the other cars - like Danica - that had already stopped. Villeneuve was beaten off pit road by Hornish, and resumed the race from 12th place on lap 23.
The fortuitous timing of her own stop put Danica Patrick at the front for the green flag, and he pulled off a picture perfect restart to quickly pull away from Ron Fellows, Justin Allgaier and Cole Whitt who ended up in a three-way battle for the second spot that resulted in Whitt mowing the grass and Allgaier getting bumped into the wall on the other side.
Another caution quickly followed for Timmy Hill stranded off-track, and NASCAR tried to get proceedings underway again on lap 27 with Patrick repeating her picture-perfect breakaway at the front to drop Fellows and Allgaier. Kyle Busch had now circulated up to fourth place despite starting from the back thanks to his early pit stop, and Andrew Ranger was in fifth just ahead of Villeneuve who was already charging back to the front by making use of every opportunity that the multiple restart attempts had presented.
Fellows, Allgaier and Busch all pitted soon after just before second place when a third yellow came out, caused for a second time by Dexter Stacy who this time had managed to hit the wall which required an unusually lengthy caution period. In fact most of the cautions at Montreal were oddly protracted on Saturday, which during the middle part of the race perfectly suited those drivers on two-stop strategies desperately trying to stretch their fuel all the way to the finish.
The restart finally came on lap 38, and all eyes were on Patrick and Villeneuve on the front row to see whether their would be any continuation of their feud that had started when Villeneuve punted Patrick off the track near the end of the Nationwide race at Road America in June, the last time the two drivers had competed head-to-head in the series. But for now at least it seemed that Villeneuve had learned from the torrent of criticism he'd received for that incident, and he politely slipped into second place as Danica once again pulled off a picture-perfect restart around the outside of turn 1.
However there was a nasty surprise awaiting Patrick a few corners later: a spectator had thrown a sports shoe over the fencing, and it had landed right on the racing line. Patrick, as race leader, was first to encounter it and the #7 ran right over it. At first it seemed the incident had done no harm, but within minutes Patrick was complaining that the steering on the car was shot and in-car pictures showed her having to saw away at the wheel even doing the straights.
Whether it was the shoe that had caused the problem or a pre-existing condition with the left rear axle from hitting the curbing too hard in earlier practice and qualifying session, something was clearly badly wrong as TV pictures captured a crucial bracket cropped off the underside of the car. Patrick tried to tough it out but finally had to come into the garage for investigation and repairs that put her six laps down and out of contention, despite having put in 20 laps in the lead and looking one of the two favourites for the win along with arch nemesis Villeneuve.
"I just can't believe the amount of bad luck we've had," signed Patrick in pit road. "How disappointing is it? We're bound to catch some good luck some time."
A debris caution on lap 46 was again slightly too early for comfort for drivers hoping to make it home from here without any further pit stops, but they were encouraged by how long it was taking to clear up after each caution and so Villeneuve committed to exactly that strategy and came in for his final visit to pit road of the day. That left Elliott Sadler in charge of the race for the restart alongside Andrew Ranger, with Justin Allgaier, Mike Wallace and Kyle Kelley close behind.
Sadler was only in charge for four laps before he followed his strict pit stop strategy and came in under green for his own final visit to pit road along with Allgaier. That put Villeneuve right back in front again, with Kyle Busch once more popping into second place briefly before his own off-sync final pit stop on lap 58 just a lap before the fifth caution of the day for Jason Bowles spinning into a deep gravel trap.
Even those who were frankly on the wrong side of the fuel conservation odds weren't inclined to pit now and instead let their stake ride on their current gambit. They were rewarded by another interminably long period behind the safety car that allowed Villeneuve to start cutting off the engine and coast down the straights to get the maximum mileage he possibly could out of the #22.
Finally on lap 63, Villeneuve and Hornish Jr. led the field to the green flag: but it was third-placed man Alex Tagliani who had the jump on them both, flying past Villeneuve for the lead while further back Hornish ended up on the receiving end of a wheel-hopping Michael McDowell and barged off the track with rear-end bodywork damage. Hornish wasted no time in rejoining the track but he'd lost multiple positions in the process and was now down in 23rd place.
Amazingly there was no caution, nor was there for each of the next three laps that saw some incident or other: on lap 64 it was Danica Patrick's wounded car getting topped into a spin by Kyle Kelley that caught up first Mike Wallace and then the hapless Hornish in a slow-speed multicar pileup. Then on lap 65 Ron Fellows went for a spin after making contact with Kyle Busch: Busch had seen an opening down the inside of a long left-hander and gone for it, and Fellows hadn't been expecting it and ended up turning in on the #54 and getting the worst of the deal. In all cases, the cars involved were able to regroup and continue.
The on lap 66 Jacques Villeneuve had his chance to make a move on Tagliani for the lead after the #30 was just a little too slow out of a corner. Villeneuve got behind him and put his foot down, driving into the back of Tagliani and then accelerating some more so that the #30 spun out. It wasn't any way for the Canadian to make any friends in the NASCAR paddock, that's for sure.
A spin for Mike Wallace brought the field back under yellow again a few minutes later, setting up another restart on lap 73 with Villeneuve now lined up alongside Grand-AM's Billy Johnson. The second row featured current Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr - no fan of road racing but doing surprisingly well here just a week after a top five finish at Watkins Glen - with Brendan Gaughan.
But it was from further back that Alex Tagliani tried to surge his way back to the front in order to have words with Villeneuve. He got passed the second row cars but in doing so sparked off shockwaves of cars bumping and colliding into one another in avoidance: it made for the messiest turns 1 and 2 of the entire race with just about everyone hitting something. Tagliani himself got tapped into a spin by Gaughan, while Jeremy Clements ended up against the barrier to trigger the seventh caution of the afternoon.
That put the race into green-white-chequered overtime, which was a disaster for those cars - including Villeneuve - who had been trying to stretch their fuel all the way from lap 46. But they were all-in now and no one was about to blink now if they could help it, even though the extended safety car periods that had once been their best friend were now their worst possible nightmare.
When the restart came on lap 76, Villeneuve drove it like he had a full tank of gas and jumped away form the pack. There were no messy heroics behind him going into turn 1 this time, with very few people now comfortable with facing a second GWC scenario this late in the day.
But that was what they got. First, Stenhouse Jr. undid all his excellent day's work by spinning into the barrier while trying to close up on Villeneuve for the lead; and elsewhere Derek White spun after getting a bump from Kyle Busch through a corner and Alex Kennedy was also off track as well. An eighth caution, and a second GWC finish attempt loomed.
Surely those early stoppers didn't have enough to carry on now? Villeneuve wouldn't budge from the lead, but second place Billy Johnson had no choice and nor did Austin Dillon. Villeneuve now faced the threat of Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier around him - and they'd all stopped later than he had. Brian Scott was the only other driver at the sharp end to try toughing it out, and his car ran dry before the end and dumped him all the way down to 24th place by the time the race finally ended.
Could Villeneuve somehow prove the exception to the rule and overcome the laws of engineering psychics? He certainly didn't look in any trouble as he shot clear in turn 1, with Allgaier and Hornish both following the leader through on the outside to get the better of Sadler for second and third places.
The home crowd held its breath: would Villeneuve's car run dry as Brian Scott's just had? Not on the first half of the two-lap GWC finale, and Villeneuve was still in charge of the race as they took the white flag. But Allgaier was pulling right up to the back of the #22 and looking for any sign of weakness. When it finally came, it appeared that Villeneuve really had finally run dry and was very slow into turn 6. Allgaier saw his moment and pounced.
But Villeneuve wasn't done, and he took the line into the apex as well. Two cars on the same spot of tarmac at the same time rarely works out well: Villeneuve was bumped wide, allowing both Allgaier and Hornish to get past him. Villeneuve was able to hold on to the spin and rejoin the race behind them, but had no time to catch up to the leading pair who duly claimed the chequered flag.
"Today was just an awesome day," said Allgaier, who hadn't led a single race all afternoon until that final moment. "Winning in Montreal means so much because all the people in the series enjoy coming here. The atmosphere is great, the fans never disappoint here but the race played out perfectly for us."
As for his collision with Villeneuve on that final lap, Allgaier was apologetic - but not hugely so. "I am really sorry that I took him out, but from what I've heard because I couldn't see it, earlier in the day, that same car spun out the #30 car that just happened to be our teammate," he said, recalling Villeneuve's treatment of Tagliani just a few laps earlier.
"I knew I was closing in on Jacques, but he braked really early into corner 6 and I was certain he had ran out of gas," he explained. "He went really slow and I had too much of a head of steam and was sorry I got into him."
Villeneuve was furious with how he had been denied a home win at the circuit named after his late father, and pulled alongside Allgaier after the finish line to remonstrate with him. "I did not run out of fuel and my engine did not sputter," he said. "I was simply taken out by Allgaier, who used me to slow down in turn 6 on the last lap."
Villneueve's team mate for the day, Sam Hornish Jr., was lucky to have survived two late-race incidents and still walk away with second place, but still felt that they should have done more. "I should feel pretty content with finishing second but I feel that Penske Racing deserved more from this day, considering the two cars that they provided us," he said.
Hornish's second place does boost him up to joint second place with Stenhouse in the NASCAR Nationwide Series standings, 22pts behind current championship leader Elliott Sadler who finished in fourth place ahead of Ron Fellows (the only former Montreal race winner in the field this year) and Michael McDowell.
Further back, Patrick Carpentier's return to NASCAR road course action - racing this week for charity - had proved to be a frustrating one. An early penalty for overrunning a chicane was soon eclipsed by more serious technical issues with his brakes that sidelined him in the garage for 12 laps before he could resume. Even so, the Canadian was signalling that he'd love to be back again next year - or even a more regular engagement in the series - seemingly putting paid to his previously announced retirement from racing for the time being after all.
Full race results and championship standings