By Mike Mulhern
KANSAS CITY, Kansas
This weekend’s 400-miler at Kansas Speedway, particularly if it’s yet another gas-mileage event, could be just the calm before a Talladega storm, judging from the initial reaction by drivers to yesterday’s stunning news that NASCAR has okayed Formula One star Jacques Villeneuve to run in next Sunday’s Talladega 500 as his first-ever Nextel Cup tour start.
Jeff Gordon, the tour leader, says he disagrees with the NASCAR move.
“I love Jacques, I’m a big fan of his, but I don’t think that’s the right decision to make,” Gordon says. “I’m very, very surprised that was approved. I don’t agree with it.
“Nothing against his talent. But that race, in the chase….
“If you want to run a race, go run Atlanta.”
Jimmie Johnson took the pole yesterday afternoon for Sunday’s Lifelock 400, and second-fastest Ryan Newman was bounced to the back of the pack for Sunday’s 1 p.m. start after his car failed post-run inspection for being too low. Seven of the 10 fastest qualifiers under warm, sunny skies were championship contenders – Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer. And Kurt Busch (12th) weren’t far behind. But it wasn’t a great day for title challengers Kevin Harvick (17th), Tony Stewart (19th), Carl Edwards (27th) and Jeff Burton (35th).
But reaction to NASCAR’s surprising Talladega okay for Villeneuve dominated the day.
“Jacques did a nice job at the test,” Gordon said, referring to a major car-of-tomorrow test at the tour’s biggest track three weeks ago. “But you can’t judge anything off a test; that’s crazy.
“Yes, he did a nice job in the Truck race (last weekend at Las Vegas), but he wasn’t in contention. He just didn’t bounce off anything, which was very good.
“But I think you need to go get experience before you get stuck into a Cup race, especially one that is so crucial to the championship.
“This thing just got thrown to me 30 or 40 minutes ago…and I’m fired up about it. There’s a lot I’d like to say about it…and it has nothing to do with Jacques Villeneuve or (car owner) Bill Davis. It’s great what they’re doing, and I want to see him in the Cup series – just not at Talladega. It’s not a place for rookies. There is too much on the line. And no matter if he’s one of the most experience drivers in the world, Talladega is not the place to start. There are so many other tracks to start; why start there? It makes no sense to me.
“But I’m focused on a championship and trying not to get too caught up in it.”
NASCAR okayed Villeneuve for next week’s Cup chase race, even though he’s only been running NASCAR machines for 24 days and has only one NASCAR race under his belt, last weekend’s Truck race at Las Vegas, where he finished a respectable 21st.
But then Villeneuve won the World Championship in 1997, and he’s an Indy 500 winner too.
However 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.
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.”
Villeneuve himself is at home in Montreal this weekend, and he issued a press release on the issue: “It’s perfect. I’m really happy that NASCAR has given me its approval so quickly, and having run Talladega with the Cup drivers (in testing three weeks ago), I’m really looking forward to it.
“It’s a huge step in my learning process, and I’m realistic in my expectations.”
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
Denny Hamlin and Kyle Petty didn’t get around to meeting yesterday, but Hamlin is trying to smooth over their angry encounter last weekend at Dover, Del.
“No matter what you do, Kyle is going to be right…and a lot of what he did was right,” Hamlin said. “It’s tough. You never want to be involved in an incident, especially with Kyle, because he’s respected a lot like Mark Martin is in the garage.
“So really I’ve just got to learn to grow up, as far as that’s concerned.
“I just like his intensity. Even though he’s not battling for a top-20 spot in points, he’s not out there just collecting a paycheck. He’s out there to race, and he gets frustrated like anyone else.
“He got loose in front of me, and I was right on him when I hit him. So there’s really not a whole lot I could have done; the closing rate was big.
“But I probably shouldn’t have gone after him (back in the garage). I should have just let it go as soon as he chose to hit my helmet. I should have just let it go and not gotten out of the car. It would have been no big issue, really.”
I didn’t see anything wrong with it,” Jeff Gordon said of the encounter. “Kyle was upset, and so was Denny. It’s okay to show your emotions…you just have to know the limits.”
Car owner Jack Roush, reacting to the post-race penalty on Carl Edwards after winning Dover, says NASCAR executives need to be careful about doling out penalties that could affect this season’s Nextel Cup championship.
“They have extraordinary power, and they can affect the outcome of the championship by meddling with things…which they have done here,” Roush complained.
But Edwards and the Roush team aren’t getting much sympathy from their peers over the 25-point penalty NASCAR assessed for the winning Ford being too low in post-race inspection last weekend at Dover, even though it was generally conceded being too low was a disadvantage for Edwards, not an advantage.
“It sure feels wrong to me,” Roush said of the penalty.
But Roush says he isn’t optimistic about his appeal: “This is not a court of your peers. This is a NASCAR-handpicked group that generally stands behind NASCAR. It is a perfunctory formality.
“But this is not the last time something will happen with this car-of-tomorrow that we don’t understand.”
Jeff Gordon, who was socked with a 100-point penalty for a car-of-tomorrow violation at Sonoma, Calif., in June, says NASCAR actually let Carl Edwards and Jack Roush off light.
“It’s hard for me to say what’s appropriate or not, but they have been harsher on things with the new car, so it didn’t surprise me,” Gordon said.
“Now you can talk about whether being high at one track might help you and being low might hurt you. But there’s a reason NASCAR has those height sticks, and if you’re not in the green area, expect a penalty.
“While it may not have altered his performance, it didn’t meet the rules.”
Actually Edwards, one of the sport’s 12 championship playoff drivers, is now fired up, because of the penalty, and that could be a plus for the team. Edwards, a three-time winner this season and runner-up in the title chase in 2005.
“I’ve tried to think of an analogy…and it’s like if you had a basketball team and scored a certain number of points and then got penalized after the game for our guys being a little shorter from the other team,” Edwards said. “It’s like it really didn’t help them out.
“I don’t really understand the penalty. I believe, from my research and Geoff Smith’s, we are the first ever to receive a points-penalty for the rear of the car being low at a downforce track.
“There are other cars—one car in particular that was low in the rear after a qualifying race at Daytona, one of the only places where that would help, and they didn’t receive any points-deduction.”
That driver, ironically, was Gordon, who won his 150-mile Daytona 500 qualifier in February. Gordon’s car failed post-race inspection for being too low, but NASCAR officials called that specific problem inconsequential and the only penalty they doled out was for him to start the 500 at the rear of the field.
“It’s kind of interesting, and I don’t really understand it,” Edwards said of the penalty he was just assessed (which is under appeal). “Everyone in NASCAR has told me they agree that we did not have an advantage (by being low at the rear of the car) and that there was no intention to make the car low. So it’s just a little bit hard to understand why there was points penalty.
“It would have been nice if they would have just done what—from what I understand – they’ve done in the past at downforce tracks, and say ‘Hey, good job. Glad you could run the race like that, and we’ll move on.’
“We’re talking about an eighth of an inch. So it’s an awfully stiff penalty.
“But that’s what it is. I feel NASCAR does the best job they can to be fair. I just think they got put into a box here, into a position, and they had to make a penalty call that makes no sense, just because of the way the rule was written.”