“I’m humbled by this award. This means more to me than you’ll ever know.”
Those were Kenny Wallace’s words in 2006 at the NASCAR Busch Series (now Nationwide Series) end-of-year banquet. The award wasn’t for series champion, nor for any other points position. Wallace was the series Most Popular Driver in 2006, as voted by the fans. Wallace is the only three-time winner of the award, having also won it in 1991 and 1994. And had fans not complained, he would never have had the chance for a fourth in 2008. Many drivers apparently still don’t have that chance.
Fans can vote online this year for the Most Popular Driver award in eight touring series other than Sprint Cup. That’s great.
What’s not so great is NASCAR’s reluctance to put some drivers on the ballot at all.
As of Wednesday of this week, Wallace wasn’t on the Nationwide Series ballot, despite being a series regular. Neither were Mike Wallace or Steve Wallace, also full-time drivers in the series. Many fans complained, and those names were added to the ballot a week after voting opened. But what of the other drivers who have raced in the series? Where are their names?
Voting for the Sprint Cup Series award includes all the drivers who attempted to make a race by the date that the ballot was created. Kudos for that! The Nationwide Series ballot, on the other hand, is looking pretty sparse. With the addition of the three Wallaces, the number on the ballot totals 36. 113 drivers have raced in the series so far in 2008. 64 of those have made at least four starts.
There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the drivers who are on the ballot. Mike Wallace is in the top 10 in points and was left off initially. Larry Gunselman, who has 10 starts this year and had his license revoked for some tracks following an avoidable incident under caution that resulted in a broken ankle for Dario Franchitti, is listed. So is Joey Logano, who has made only four starts (though he is slated for several more). Kyle Busch, who has started all but one race, is not (Busch does appear on the Sprint Cup and Craftsman Truck Series ballots). Stephen Leicht, who has the same number of races as Logano, is not. Cale Gale and Burney Lamar each have eight races. Gale is on the ballot. Lamar is not. Franchitti, who has the same number of races as Mark Green, is off, while Green is on.
It gives me a headache thinking about it. And that’s just the Nationwide Series. Even considering four or more starts as the cutoff based on Logano (though the Cup ballot includes drivers with even fewer races-like Jacques Villeneuve, who never made a race this year), a half dozen drivers were left off the Craftsman Truck Series ballot. There are 38 drivers with four or more starts, but just 32 eligible for voting. The Camping World East Series has a considerably shorter schedule, with only five races so far, but 53 drivers have started a race in the series, with 32 on the ballot. The Camping World West Series has 29 on the ballot, and 62 drivers have started at least one of the seven races so far. Whelen modifieds? 34 out of 48 are listed. See the pattern here?
This is the wrong way of thinking for several reasons. First and foremost, if there are criteria for inclusion on the ballot, what are they? The fans deserve to know why a certain driver was included or excluded. Otherwise, it looks suspiciously like NASCAR is trying to tell Joe Fan who he wants to root for. That is not a good thing.
Taking the Nationwide Series as an example once again, I tried to find some kind of consistency in selection. At first, I though maybe Kenny Wallace had been left off because he is on the Sprint Cup ballot and did race in the Daytona 500. If the Cup guys are left off the Nationwide ballot, that might not be a bad thing. But Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, David Ragan and David Reutimann are all Cup regulars and were on the ballot from the beginning. Also, some Cup drivers aren’t on the NNS ballot despite more starts than series regulars who are. Number of races seems to have little bearing. It might have seemed like NASCAR was attempting to just cull the number to those drivers who they thought might have a chance of winning. But then why leave a three-time winner of the award off? And that’s wrong anyway. Even if a driver doesn’t win, he and his fans deserve the chance.
The thing is, the Most Popular Driver Award is truly the fans’ award. As such, the drivers who win it see it as a true honor. It’s an insult to fans’ intelligence to tell them which drivers they may or may not vote for as their favorite driver. If it was a move to make the ballot less cumbersome by not including all of the drivers’ names, I can sort of see that-wading through more than 100 names might be tedious for the casual fan. But then why not include a write-in space?
I’ve said many times that every driver has fans. Some have more than others, but every fan deserves the chance to root for his or her driver. By leaving some drivers off the Most Popular Driver ballots, NASCAR is denying the fans that, and it isn’t right. People don’t need to be told who to root for. They can figure it out for themselves.
I have always been one of those who scoff at the idea of NASCAR fixing races. There are too many factors beyond their control that it would be nigh-on impossible. But it seems, sadly, than NASCAR found one race it CAN fix, at least to some degree. Even sadder is the fact that the race they could control the most was the one they should control the least, for it is a race, the only race, really, that belongs wholly to the fans.
There is no reason that the average fan can see why all drivers shouldn’t be included on all series’ Most Popular Driver ballots. At the very least, a write-in should be created for those drivers not listed. If there is a reason a driver isn’t included, fans should be able to know what that reason is. Fans aren’t stupid and deserve better.
Come on, NASCAR, do the right thing for fans, if only just in this one race.