I’ve got a knot in my stomach, and I just can’t get it out. It’s been 24 hours, and the All-Star Race has left me torn; as well as scratching my head in disbelief.
Winner Kasey Kahne can relate; well, to the disbelief part, at least. As Kahne celebrated his surprising victory into the wee hours of Sunday morning, he was also busy figuring out how the heck he went from Sprint Showdown failure to a $1 million success in the All-Star Race. A disappointing fifth in the Showdown preliminary event – far below the cutline to transfer into the “A” main – Kahne was preparing, in his words, “to grab a couple of Budweisers, run to the motorhome and watch the All-Star Race myself.” And while he’s one of stock car racing’s more recognizable names, on paper that’s how it should have been. The fifth-year driver’s last win came in 2006, and Kahne failed to either visit victory lane or make the Chase last season. This year, he has yet to score a top-five finish in a points race, let alone win; and without the accolades of a past championship under his belt, Kahne was destined for the sidelines instead of the spotlight.
That is, until the fans spoke up. Winning the ultimate popularity contest – a fan vote for those not yet eligible to compete in the All-Star Race – Kahne got his chance to transfer into the main event. And boy, did he have a million reasons to thank them when the 100-lapper was all said and done.
“The fans put us in, and hopefully we made them happy,” Kahne said. “24th to first, that’s the best that we can do.”
But was it the fairest thing NASCAR could have done for everyone else? Now, the Fan Vote to this point had always been one of Sprint Nextel’s best additions to the All-Star Race format. It allows you – the fans – to get directly involved, to choose an old favorite, usually an underdog, that you could both cheer for and honor by participation in the big race itself. But if you look at the list of previous Fan Vote winners: Ken Schrader, Martin Truex Jr. (before he was even a full-time Cup Rookie), Kyle Petty and Kenny Wallace, none of them were in a position to scare the competition out of their shorts. It was a chance for fans to let these drivers know they were loved, to acknowledge their support; not an opportunity for them to sneak in and steal away the win from the guys that earned their way in the show.
With all that said, Kahne’s on-track performance was clearly up to par. Once he got into the All-Star Race, both he and his crew put themselves in position to make the most of their opportunity. Crew chief Kenny Francis made the call of the night by having Kahne take no tires on his final stop – giving them the track position to finish the night up front – but the No. 9 was one of the best cars on the “long” run virtually all race long. By the end of segment 3, Kahne had gone from starting shotgun on the field (24th) to seventh, challenging for a position in the top five. Clearly, the Budweiser Dodge was a fast hot rod – it just didn’t have enough time in the Sprint Showdown before it to establish a position in the top two.
But that’s important; for under the rules of competition, the car wasn’t good enough at the right time to earn its place in the field the right way – a scenario that leaves NASCAR in a precarious position when it comes to credibility. Yes, the All-Star Race is all about entertainment. Yes, the fans should have some input into how a race tailor-made for them is run. But when does the line between fan support and statistical brilliance get blurred? It’s certainly not Kahne’s fault he made it in under the rules, but this much we know: the All-Star Race was a won by a guy who made the field not by athletic performance, but because a lot of women think he’s hot. And because of that, 23 drivers who earned their way in on merit – and Greg Biffle in particular – find themselves $1 million poorer.
Certainly, an argument can be made that Kahne’s been more competitive than some of the past champions in the starting field Saturday night. But those men do have a Sprint Cup trophy to call their own, similar to the way all Masters champions in golf are given a special exemption based on past performance. While Kahne’s been a good driver, he hasn’t yet achieved that level of greatness; and that’s why he should have been on the outside looking in.
Until the fans provided him with the ultimate save, of course. Whether that was a save that should have been made is a matter of much debate; but no matter which side you’re on, it’s a bit of a shame to see what was one of the best races during NASCAR’s growth period get decided via a 1-800 number. In the modern All-Star Race, we don’t have checkers or wreckers; we’ve got a parade of pomp, circumstance and popularity.
While you chew on that, I’ll be out searching for some Allstate girls and a pair of pink and purple pajamas. If I get a head start now, maybe I’ll be eligible in 2009…