When Sprint (then NEXTEL) took over from Winston as NASCAR’s title sponsor in 2004, ending the sport’s 32 years of association with the tobacco giant, they didn’t hesitate to make major changes. But in the midst of those adjustments (can you say Chase?) one small tweak the telecommunications company implemented, flying under the radar so to speak was adding a Fan Vote component to the All-Star Race. As a basic idea, it’s a good one because it allows the rank and file to have their say while ensuring the Most Popular Driver not already qualified makes the main event.
So far, it’s worked out with a list of names near-universally applauded by the base. The inaugural winner of the first Fan Vote, in 2004 was the legend that is Kenny Schrader, rewarding old school supporters with a respectable 13th-place finish in the race. The following season (2005) the pendulum swung to “young gun” Martin Truex, Jr., a pleasant surprise considering at the time he was running a skeleton Cup schedule before jumping to a full season in 2006 – a year the award was captured by Kyle Petty. In 2007, Kenny Wallace picked up the honors with Kasey Kahne doing likewise (and winning the whole shebang; the only time it has ever happened) in 2008. Two seasons ago, it was then super-rookie Joey Logano taking the “win” whilst last year it was Carl Edwards who came out on top.
Notice no one has won the Fan Vote twice, the result of a process almost as competitive as the on-track action itself. Over the years plenty of drivers, especially those who are longshots to win the Sprint Showdown have campaigned to make the main event this way. In 2007, Kenny Wallace launched a “vote for Kenny” website that linked to the official page and a paint scheme supporting his campaign. In 2008, Robby Gordon did likewise, running a “Vote for Robby” wrap at Darlington the week before the race while in true presidential style, rival Dale Earnhardt, Jr. suggested his legions of fans vote for good buddy Elliott Sadler instead. A.J. Allmendinger went one step further, using his Labrador as collateral while telling the fans to: “Vote for me. If you don’t like me, that’s OK, just vote for me because you like my dog.” (Kahne still beat all these drivers out).
The following year, drivers went to even more extremes. Allmendinger hit the Talladega infield and delivered pizza (he was sponsored by Hunt Brothers Pizza at the time) to fans in exchange for votes. His wife also got involved, telling fans that A.J. was “bringing sexy back” – something I think I will leave right alone.
So while the methods are, um, unique the motives from the drivers are pure; while not the ideal way to make the starting field for the All-Star event, it’s an award they truly appreciate. “It was a real honor to win the Sprint Fan Vote last year,” said Carl Edwards last week. “You look up at that grandstand and see all the people who helped get you in the race and it’s very humbling. It definitely motivated me to do a better job for them in the race.”
Of course, to a certain extent this is little more than lip service because I don’t believe a driver would try harder – don’t they always try to win every race? (Edwards, just for the record, finished a disappointing dead last after being swept up in a wreck between Logano and Mark Martin with just ten laps remaining.) But when push comes to shove, they’re genuinely happy to just make the main event, winning the bragging rights of a popularity contest along the way.
Voting for this year’s event began on March 23rd and as of this past weekend, over 1.5 million votes have been cast – shattering the previous record. It’s a number that is sure to rise over the week ahead, too as excitement around the All-Star event continues before the deadline of 5 PM ET on Saturday prior to the race that evening. Just for the record, the following ten drivers (in alphabetical order) are leading heading into the homestretch: A.J. Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Brad Keselowski, Bobby Labonte, Joey Logano, Paul Menard, David Ragan and Brian Vickers.
Despite the lofty stats, unfortunately we haven’t seen as many crazy stunts being pulled among competing drivers this year. Why? Well, it doesn’t take a genius to know which one will come out atop that list. I’m not going to make the mistake of saying something dumb, like I’ll eat my hat or wear my NASCAR paraphernalia to the office instead of my suit, but if there was ever a vote you could take straight to the bank this year’s would be the one. Simply put, unless he wrecks out of the Showdown, losing his car for the main event Earnhardt, Jr. will take first place, winning by the sort of landslide we’ve not seen since Barack Obama won the Presidency back in 2008. Getting bumped back into the Showdown, courtesy his 10-year exemption for winning the 2000 Winston expiring NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver has to pull the fan card for the first time in an 11-year career racing Cup full-time.
With a winless streak extending back to June, 2008 at Michigan it’s gotta be nice to have millions ready to back you as a safety net come All-Star Weekend. But despite being a feather in his cap, for his part at least Earnhardt, Jr. is staying humble about it; he was typically “aw shucks” about the possibility of being voted in this past weekend in Dover.
“I don’t take it for granted that we’ll get the fan vote. Anything can happen,” Junior claimed. “The most important thing is just focusing on the points races, the races that matter toward the championship. When we get to All-Star Weekend, however things are lined up is how things are lined up. It will be interesting being on the other side of the fence, trying to find a way into the race and going through that experience myself personally, to have an appreciation for what that is like versus just showing up and being locked in… it could be interesting and good for me to have that experience as well.”
Now whilst I understand Junior’s not going to come out and say he’s going to win – is there anyone who seriously thinks he won’t? For many fans, that’s frustrating considering their favorite driver stands no chance of making it through this “last gasp” way to make the field – taking the fun out of anticipating the voting results. But to me? Junior’s automatic inclusion is all well and good. The purpose of an All-Star event is to see the best and / or most popular people in the sport compete on the big stage. You see this phenomenon in baseball, basketball, and other sports from time to time when big names will be voted in even if they’re having bad seasons. What’s the point of having an exhibition, made for the fans when the driver fans tune in for the most won’t be a part of it?
So for those all up in arms about the Fan Vote going awry, how much does it matter? Regardless of the Junior drama, the All-Star Race will still be great to watch – confusing formats aside. Remember Kyle Busch getting wrecked (sort of) by Denny Hamlin last year then storming into his teammates’ hauler following a profanity-laden tirade on the radio? Good times, folks, good times. For in a sport that is all consumed by points, points and more points, it’s nice to have something a little different for one night only where drivers only need to worry about racing for a win. Second place is irrelevant. Heck, there’s something pretty fine about that concept when you really think about it.
So give Junior his shot no matter how he gets in. What happens with the Fan Vote, at the end of the day won’t change the final product of what happens up front, for better or worse.
One final point: What a brutal late wreck in the Nationwide Series race that was Saturday. You get so used to how safe the cars are that it’s rare (for me, at least) to see a wreck that worries me… but that truly was one. More worrisome was the injury suffered by Glen Wheeler, a pit crew member for Kevin Harvick, Inc. who was hit by a rear spring from the mangled vehicle of his own driver – Clint Bowyer. Wheeler was later released but it’s just another reminder – even in this age of massive safety improvements – racing is inherently a very dangerous sport and anything, repeat anything, can and probably will happen. Please join me in wishing Glen a happy, healthy recovery from the incident…
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