Ex-F1 champ Villeneuve making NASCAR debut at Talladega


TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The biggest wildcard of wildcard weekend will start near of the front of the field Sunday in the UAW-Ford 500.

Former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve easily qualified for his first Nextel Cup event, something that some Cup drivers were hoping wouldn't happen.

Villeneuve will start on the outside of the third row after turning a lap at 188.215 mph Saturday in qualifying.

Several Cup veterans, including Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton, didn't think NASCAR should have approved Villeneuve to make his Cup debut at Talladega.

He will start ahead of all 12 Chase drivers.

Villeneuve is 1-for-1 in Cup qualifying attempts, but former Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. now is 0-for-3. Hornish turned a lap at 187.262 mph, which was 13th best among the 51 cars in qualifying.

But Hornish was 12th among the 16 drivers who didn't have a guaranteed spot, four spots too slow. Only eight spots were available for the 43-car grid.

The non-qualified drivers had a different set-up than the 35 drivers who know they were locked in. Talladega is an impound race, meaning the teams can't make major adjustments after qualifying.

Teams locked in were free to use a race set-up for qualifying. The other teams used a qualifying set-up, which adds speed, so most of the non-qualifiers were near the top of the speed chart in qualifying.

But it wasn't enough for Hornish.

"The guys in the engine department did all they could,'' Hornish said. "But we knew this would be the hardest one for us to get into."

Hornish, who probably will move to Cup full-time next season, also failed to qualify at New Hampshire and Dover last month.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.