Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side-By-Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!
Today’s Question: The past few years in the All-Star Race, the series has used a fan vote to select one driver not previously eligible to participate in the main event. Do you think that’s a fair way to do it, or should each driver qualify based on his or her own merit?
Fan Vote Is Fine By Me
On Saturday night, drivers not yet locked into the evening’s Sprint All-Star Race will learn whether or not the fans love them enough to have spent time voting one of them into a race in which they really do not deserve to be in. Since NASCAR began allowing fans to vote in drivers a couple of years ago, they have not voted in a driver that has won a Cup race within a decade of that All-Star Race. When fan voting began in 2005, Martin Truex Jr., who was not yet even racing full-time in the Cup Series, won a spot in the night’s feature race. The next year, fans voted in Kyle Petty, who had not won since 1995 (and still has not). Then Kenny Wallace, thanks to his position as a commentator on SPEED Channel, successfully campaigned his way into the event.
But with all that being said, there is no harm in letting fans vote for who gets to bring up the rear of the All-Star pack of cars. The race has no bearing on the season standings and is simply supposed to be a fun competition for the $1 million winner’s check. It usually turns into exactly that; so why shouldn’t the fans have some say over which people they’re going to see do battle?
The drivers that most likely will contend for the win are those who have won recent races and championships with their top-tier race teams. Does anyone really have a problem with the Furniture Row Chevy parading around the track two laps down? Sure, a non-deserving driver could take out good cars at the beginning of the race; but that is a danger in any event, points-paying or exhibition.
Another reason that the fan vote should stay in place is the good that can come out of the drivers’ campaigns for the votes. In 2006, Coca-Cola offered to pay $1,000,000 to Petty’s Victory Junction Gang Camp – if the fans voted him into the All-Star Race. It worked. Petty got to race, meaning he could promote the camp, Coca-Cola, and the other sponsors for his struggling team – as well as netting Victory Junction some much needed funds. The fans also got to see a driver that they love compete in a race that he normally would not be in. Since All-Star races can be crash-fests, if a driver like Petty sticks with the lead pack, the seas could part and allow him or another underdog to trot to victory lane. That would be one of the top surprises of the year, and definitely a feel good story that would be told from fan to fan for generations. The All-Star event also gives sponsors another method to promote their product; and with sponsorship at a premium in NASCAR, this is a perfect chance for a company of a smaller team to get the most out of their financial commitment.
Finally – and this cannot be said enough – the All-Star weekend is about the fans. From the pit crew competition to the burnout contest to qualifying with a pit stop to the Sprint Showdown race to the main event, the whole 48-hour period is about a show for the people that fuel NASCAR’s success. The fans should continue to have a say in the event that is made for them. They used to vote on how many people in the past All-Star races would be inverted in the final segment, and few complained. That’s gone, but at least the fan vote remains, allowing them to stay involved in some small way. It’s a good addition to the event for many reasons; there’s no need for someone to come along and be impeached. – Doug Turnbull
The Fan Vote Must be Changed
This year will be the fifth year that fans have been allowed to vote one individual driver from the Sprint Showdown (formerly Nextel Open) into the Sprint All-Star Race (formerly Nextel All-Star Challenge). To be eligible for the vote in, drivers must finish outside of the top two in the Sprint Showdown and on the lead lap. This rule allowed (in order of year chosen) Ken Schrader, Truex (as a part-time driver), Petty and Wallace to race in the main event in years past. Kerry Earnhardt was the first driver to win the fan vote back in 2004 (driving the No. 33 owned by RCR) but failed to finish the Nextel Open, disqualifying himself from the event.
Now, I am generally all for more drivers getting a chance to race in the All-Star Race; however, I would prefer that the drivers that transfer out of the Sprint Showdown (or “B-Main”) be the best possible cars and drivers, just like the typical short-track Saturday night program. I would personally rather see the third-place car from the Sprint Showdown in the All-Star Race starting lineup; that way, the fans would know that the last participant in the starting lineup would have a legitimate chance of being competitive.
Kenny Wallace, last year’s fan vote winner by a substantial margin, finished 18th in the Nextel Open. He was the second to last car on the lead lap at the end of the 40-lap event. For Wallace, earning the fan-vote transfer was the culmination of a rather large scale campaign, complete with a website and hood space on the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet during the Darlington race weekend to publicize it. That does not even begin to mention the constant referencing of the campaign on the SPEED Channel, where Kenny is a personality. But once he got in the Nextel All-Star Challenge – finally accomplishing his goal – Wallace dawdled around at the back at the field for nearly the entire 80-lap distance before finishing 16th. The only people that Wallace was ahead of at the end of the event were the five guys (Denny Hamlin, Casey Mears, the Busch brothers and Bobby Labonte) who crashed out. There’s no way around it; Wallace simply was not competitive.
Now, this is nothing against Wallace’s talent level or Furniture Row Racing in general, but they simply did not have the night’s setup right. And that’s a shame; for the main idea of transferring cars from the Sprint Showdown to the All-Star Race is to help make the show better. It just doesn’t happen, though; of the previous four beneficiaries from the fan vote, Petty’s eighth-place finish in 2006 is the best of them – and that was in a car that was actually slightly dented up in a wreck earlier (and subsequently repaired). The others either ran in the middle to back of the pack, or (in Truex’s case) got wrecked. The fan vote, in its current form, does not guarantee that all the cars that transfer into the All-Star Race will be competitive with the rest of the field.
Now, the fans have had some type of involvement with the inner workings of the All-Star Race for about 12 years now, be it with voting on field inversions or this driver vote. The fans, if this vote were taken away, would likely want something on a similar scale to replace it – a result of “fan entitlement,” something that I’ve been seeing in Sprint Cup fans since at least 2002, if not further back than that. So, NASCAR should look into making certain changes in the fan vote for next year’s All-Star Race. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be abolished – like I proposed earlier – but that it should be retooled. For example, you could allow only the top 25% of finishers in the Sprint Showdown (outside of the top two) to be considered for the fan vote (this year that would make finishers 3-9 eligible, with 29 entries as of right now). After the Sprint Showdown ends, allow only 35 minutes or so for fan voting online at nascar.com, via text messaging (likely Sprint only), or even with phone lines like what American Idol or Dancing with the Stars does. That way, the fans would still have a say in who gets to advance to the All-Star Race, but also guarantees that whoever gets voted in has a great chance of being competitive and giving those already in a race for their money. – Phil Allaway