By Dustin Albino

Last fall, Team Hezeberg announced it would run a partial NASCAR Cup Series schedule in 2022. Just over four months later, they’ll be competing in the Great American Race.

With a partnership with Reaume Brothers Racing, Tonie Hezemans and Ernst Berg formed Team Hezeberg’s Cup team. And they wanted to make a splash by getting a big-name driver to attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500.

During the Daytona Next Gen test last month, 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1997 Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve got the nod to pilot the No. 27 Ford for this year’s Daytona 500. It would be the first time since 2008 that Villeneuve attempted to qualify for NASCAR’s biggest race, though he failed to qualify 14 years prior with Bill Davis Racing.

When the team got to Daytona International Speedway this week, the No. 27 car was slow, ranking 40th in the first practice and 41st in the second practice. A shot at being one of the two quickest open cars in qualifying — which would look the team into the Daytona 500 — looked bleak.

“I was convinced we didn‘t have it,” Villeneuve said. “I thought we would be fifth (of the open cars), if we were lucky we would be fourth.”

But come Daytona 500 pole qualifying night, Villeneuve laid down a lap of 176.436 mph, which at the time was quicker than the lone other open car to have gone out, Greg Biffle from NY Racing.

After Villeneuve, Kaz Grala with The Money Team Racing went out, going .084 seconds slower than the No. 27 car. Three cars after that, JJ Yeley posted a lap slower than Villeneuve. Next open driver up, Timmy Hill, and he too went slower than Team Hezeberg.

By beating out four open cars, sheer elation and emotion poured out from Villeneuve, as he locked himself into Sunday’s Daytona 500.

“It‘s amazing because sometimes you know you‘re quick and you expect it and it goes wrong,” Villeneuve added. “That‘s a big letdown. When I thought, ‘Oh, we can‘t get in on time,‘ so it‘s the biggest surprise and it‘s such a relief.”

Hezemans, the 1978 Rolex 24 at Daytona winner, was surprised himself. He didn’t think the team had much of a chance to qualify its way into the Great American Race.

“We never expected this because we know nothing about ovals,” Hezemans said. “It’s totally unexpected.”

Villeneuve, who is one of just five drivers to win an F1 championship and an Indy 500, said qualifying day on Wednesday had little to no stress. He thought the team would have to race its way into the Daytona 500 in one of Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel races.

“I didn‘t think we‘d get in anyways,” Villeneuve stated. “I thought, ‘OK, let‘s see if we can do a lap where with the line I don‘t lose half a tenth, or maybe I get P4 or P3, so if something happens in the races I get in anyways.

“I really didn‘t stress about getting in on time because I didn‘t think it was going to happen.”

But now Villeneuve is guaranteed to start his first Daytona 500. It will be just the fifth Cup start for the 50-year-old, with the last coming at Sonoma Raceway in 2013. He’s also competed in nine Xfinity Series races on road courses with Team Penske and Braun Racing, earning four top-five results.

Heading into Thursday night’s Duels, Villeneuve isn’t sure what the No. 27 team’s strategy will be. The primary goal is to keep the car clean, given the big payday comes on Sunday.

“We‘ll have to discuss it with the team,” Villeneuve said. “I‘m happy because I brought half of my team from Europe, my two oldest [kids] will see me racing.

No matter what happens on Sunday, Team Hezeberg plans to make its next Cup start at Circuit of The Americas in late March, with Loris Hezemans driving. The team plans to race all the road courses this season, hoping to do additional ovals.

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