TALLADEGA, Ala. – Jacques Villeneuve has caused quite a stir.
Oh, the Nextel Cup boys are happy to have him around, being an F1 champion and Indy 500 winner and all. It's just they don't want him around this weekend, here at Talladega Superspeedway, trying to qualify for Sunday's UAW-Ford 500.
"I think he's a tremendous talent and he belongs in this series, and I'm excited to have him in this series," Jeff Gordon said Friday. "But I don't care if you're Michael Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve or Dario Franchitti. The greatest driver on the planet should not be running their first race this weekend."
It's easy to see where Gordon is coming from, what with a little thing called the Nextel Cup championship on the line this weekend. Sure, all 10 races in the Chase pay the same in points, but this isn't just any race. This is Talladega, where bad things happen to even the most experienced drivers, and Villeneuve's Cup experience amounts to a single test session.
One wrong move Sunday could change the entire face of the Chase, and those in the playoff would rather not add another wild card to a deck that's already stacked against them.
"He could go anywhere else and make his debut," Kyle Busch chimed in with his take on the situation. "Go to Martinsville, that's fine. Got to Phoenix, that's fine. Loudon. Whatever. The biggest thing is that this is a Talladega plate race, and these things are already out of control sometimes."
In case you need the back story, Villeneuve hardly is a rookie racer. He won the 1995 Indy 500 en route to that year's CART championship, and two years later he eked out the legendary Schumacher for the F1 championship. Only two other drivers – Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi – have won all three.
NASCAR is the logical next step in Villeneuve's quest to win at all the top levels of racing; a quest he hopes will begin in February with the Daytona 500.
While he didn't have to compete this weekend for NASCAR to clear him for Daytona, Villeneuve wanted to get the laps in to gain valuable restrictor-plate racing experience.
But with a championship on the line, is this the right time to do that?
"I think I would say the same thing in their shoes," Villeneuve said of the near-unanimous voice inside the Cup garage questioning the judgment of anyone making their Cup debut at Talladega. "You don't want any unknowns out there when you're running for a championship.
"At the same time, I've always tried to race intelligently. I'm not here to be a hero. I don't have any points and I'm not here for a championship. All I want to do is get the race mileage to get ready for Daytona."
Gordon doesn't begrudge Villeneuve for his decision. Rather, he's ticked at NASCAR for allowing the 36-year-old Canadian to enter the race.
"There are plenty of other races – ARCA and Cup – that gives them plenty of experience to get ready for Daytona," Gordon said.
NASCAR defended its decision by pointing to Villeneuve's resume, the fact that he's won on high-speed ovals and that he tested here last month.
But testing under controlled conditions is different than racing three-wide through a corner. That's when Talladega comes to life, chewing up and spitting out drivers like a Cuisinart.
"Riding around here by yourself is no challenge whatsoever," Jeff Burton said. "But when you put 42 other guys out there, it gets pretty hectic and the decision-making is different in these cars than it is normally every week."
Villeneuve insisted Friday that he's comfortable in the draft. In fact, he said during the last day of testing "nobody knew it was me in the car. Everybody worked with me, and there wasn't a problem."
"I think that's what made the difference in NASCAR's eyes," he said. "Not because I came from Formula One, but because I showed I can draft out there."
Villeneuve qualified sixth on Saturday, proving he's fast enough to be in teh field. Still, if he is involved in a crash, and if that crash impacts the Chase for the Nextel Cup, NASCAR will have a lot of explaining to do.
- Jacques Villeneuve
- Talladega Superspeedway