By Mike Mulhern
KANSAS CITY, Kansas
NASCAR’s decision to okay Formula One star Jacques Villeneuve for next week’s Nextel Cup race at Talladega has stunned NASCAR regulars. Villeneuve, though he won the World Championship in 1997 and he’s an Indy 500 winner too, has only been running NASCAR machines for 24 days, and he has only one race under his belt, a 21st place finish at last week’s Las Vegas Truck race.
And this Talladega 500 is not only already a wild card event in the middle of the championship chase, it’s also the debut event for the controversial car-of-tomorrow at the tour’s biggest, fastest track. Drivers have had many questions about the upcoming Talladega race, in the wake of the full-bore test there three weeks ago.
In fact NASCAR yesterday announced it would not be setting all the technical rules for the Talladega race until (ital) after (close ital) the final practice session.
Why is NASCAR okaying Villeneuve? John Darby, NASCAR’s Cup tour director: “First of all, the chase has nothing to do with our qualifying a driver,” Darby said. “It’s irrelevant. We start 43 cars every week, and it just happens the last 10 weeks of the season involves the chase. But as far as our operating procedures, we don’t change anything.
“Villeneuve was approved to test at Talladega, and he did a real nice job in the test, and that’s typically a function of an approval.
“He is a world champion, and he has enough motorsports experience at high speeds.”
Darby says he’s confident that Villeneuve is smart enough and savvy enough to know when he might be getting in over his head.
“You’ve got to believe that, because he wouldn’t have attained the goals he has if he wasn’t capable of that,” Darby said. “A lot of our approval process involves the committee having confidence in the driver to make smart decisions. That’s 90 percent of it. And with Jacques you can see that, and you know his history.
“That’s much, much different than the first time we meet a young man coming out of a weekly racing series.”
And what does veteran Dave Blaney think about his new teammate making his Cup debut at Talladega? “I guess it’s better than doing it at Monaco,” Blaney said with a grin.
But Kyle Busch, one of the 12 men vying for the championship, was quite taken aback: “Villeneuve at Talladega? Holy cow. That’s not good.
“You’ve got to start somewhere, but the Cup series at Talladega is definitely not the place to start.
“He did well in his first Truck race, and I’m sure he’ll be running more Trucks races this year to get ready for next year.”
Talladega worries Busch, with or without Villeneuve: “I hope guys keep their heads on their shoulders.
“The bump draft you need more now than ever. If two cars get nose-to-tail and bump-draft all the way around the track, they can check out on the field. Casey Mears and I did that during the test.
“But when you do bump somebody, they get squirrelly…and that’s not too promising.
“We can foresee a ‘big one.’ And there’s no real safe place to be, because I was running second in the Busch race and wound up on my lid. The only place would be dead last.”