Believing in Jacques

Jonathan Baum

A year ago, the memorable wreck (a different sort of Big One) at Talladega was caused by Brian Vickers.

Earlier this year, it was Tony Raines.

A couple years back at Talladega, Mike Wallace, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson sparked a large, multi-car wreck.

Throw Daytona into the mix, and Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick have combined to cause big wrecks, while Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch have taken each other out up front.

And don't forget the chaos that ensued behind Harvick and Mark Martin earlier this year in the Daytona 500.

The list goes on. For a while.

Look at some of the names on that list. Not exactly NASCAR slouches.

And these guys are worried about Jacques Villeneuve making his Nextel Cup debut on Sunday at Talladega?

"If you watch these races," Jeff Burton said, "most wrecks in these races start in the front with the guys that normally run in the front." (Read: Gordon, Johnson, Stewart, etc.)

Think about your typical plate race. Often, especially in recent seasons, the first three-quarters or so of the race is run relatively clean. Sure, there are some dust-ups, and sometimes the Big One happens early. But the general rule dictates that as the laps count down, drivers become more aggressive and less patient. They make more daring moves, providing more opportunities for that big wreck.

And if/when there is a wreck (no, it doesn't always happen at Talladega, just usually), well, everyone knows cautions breed cautions. The rest of the race turns into a slugfest.

So with open wheel ace Villeneuve set to make his Cup debut at Talladega this weekend, the garage is up in arms. After all, this track is hard enough on the veterans; how can a rookie handle it, and what if that rookie causes the wreck that takes out a few championship contenders?

These are legitimate concerns. But what these drivers are forgetting is that the more conservative, willing-to-give-and-take manner in which they race in the early and middle stages of a plate race, that's how Villeneuve wants to race for the entire 500 miles.

He's not Juan Pablo Montoya, willing to fight for every position on the track all day long, no matter the circumstances. At least Villeneuve claims as much, and long-time observers of his driving style tend to agree.

Villeneuve just wants to turn laps. He wants to build upon a good Talladega test and a clean practice session. He wants to prove he can handle the draft, stay out of trouble and prepare for Daytona.

So when all hell breaks loose in those last 30 or 40 laps, it could be the likes of Gordon, Harvick, Junior, Stewart and Kyle Busch making the dangerous, yet dazzling and breathtaking moves. Or it could be one of them – or some other driver – getting a tick loose and making a critical mistake.

All the while, if he's as smart as most believe, Villeneuve will just be making laps, staying out of the way.

No, it won't be easy on him. Talladega is tough, and the Car of Tomorrow might make it tougher. But Villeneuve's not after points or a win. He just wants to keep it clean, finish the race and not embarrass himself.

This is a plate race, though, and anything can happen. So don't be surprised if Villeneuve's first Cup start ends with a crash-induced DNF.

But also don't be surprised if Villeneuve simply is a victim of that wreck rather than the cause of it.