One Saturday night in May, the stars shine bright at Charlotte Motor Speedway as the best in the sport line up to race it out for a million-dollar prize. This weekend, the Sprint All-Star Race will light up the night on Saturday once again in the hometown of stock car racing, when race winners from the past two seasons, plus recent past champions and event winners, take to the track. They’ll be joined by a trio of drivers looking to even the score with the sport’s elite: the top two finishers in the last-chance Sprint Showdown, along with one other driver voted into the race by fans.
Last-chance races are run at local tracks across the country as a way to add extra excitement to race nights, pitting as-of-yet unqualified drivers for the feature event against each other to battle it out for a place in the main show. It can be a barn-burner, and it works. The Showdown works here, too, because it not only gives fans an extra race to watch (this year’s edition will be held on Friday night, before theCWTS race), but it also gives them a chance to see their favorite driver move on to duke it out for the bigger prize (though the winner of this race has only won the All-Star event twice). It provides a legitimate way to deepen the field.
And when that’s over, still one moredriver will be called to the stage for driver introductions in this All-Star event: the winner of a Fan Vote. The Fan Vote winner (or second- or third-place vote getter if the winner races in in the Showdown) rounds out the field and gives one popular driver who hasn’t won a race the chance to prove he or she belongs in the company of the All-Stars anyway.
But do they really?
Well, no; even the top two in the Showdown have to race their way in. The Fan Vote winner doesn’t even have to be a competitive driver in a competitive car, though it sometimes works out that way. The reason he or she didn’t make the cut in the first place was because, well, they weren’t fast enough.
Yes, the vote does give fans of the winner a chance to see their favorite in the main event, and that might sell a few more tickets now that the winner is decided the day before the All-Star Race. And there is some weight to the argument that in some other sports, including Major League Baseball and theNBA, set their all-star starting lineups entirely by Fan Vote.
But do those models apply to NASCAR? As much as the powers that be keep trying to make it so, NASCAR isn’t like other sports where, at some point, everyone wins at least one game. In NASCAR, a driver can have a career that spans years and could never win a race.
The problem with the Fan Vote is that while it can and often has rewarded a driver whose equipment has held him back, once he or she makes the main event, that driver isn’t going to suddenly be wheeling a car equal to Jimmie Johnson’s. A popular driver past his prime or who hasn’t reached his potential getting voted in is a great feel-good story, too, but that’s about all it will be.
Yes, Kasey Kahne bucked the trend in 2008 and won the All-Star Race after winning the Fan Vote. But he’s the anomaly here. Let’s take a look at the other Fan Vote winners and how they fared.
2004: Ken Schrader; finished 13th Schrader finished 13th out of 24 drivers — not a terrible result, but it’s only fair to note that eight drivers failed to finish the race.
2005: Martin Truex, Jr.; finished 22nd Truex got the vote thanks to an endorsement by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. but finished the race last, though it’s fair to note that Truex was involved on a crash, one of eleven drivers who recorded DNFs that night.
2006: Kyle Petty; finished eighth Petty, a sentimental favorite who was nearing the end of his career, finished eighth, but only 10 of 20 drivers finished the race. He survived a race of attrition.
2007: Kenny Wallace; finished 16th Wallace, popular for his affable personality, was driving a then-woefully underfunded Furniture Row Racing car. His result reflects the equipment he was driving; Wallace was last among the drivers who finished the race.
2008: Kasey Kahne; finished first Kahne has been the only driver to carry a Fan Vote spot to a race win.
2009: Joey Logano; finished eighth Logano actually had a quietly solid run, beating some of the sport’s biggest names. Unfortunately, on All-Star night, nobody remembers merely B-level performances.
2010: Carl Edwards; finished 21st Edwards crashed and finished dead last, but bounced back to win a year later. His need for the Fan Vote was a bit of a surprise, and he hasn’t needed it since — and won’t until at least 2021.
2011: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.; finished 14th Without a win and with his own All-Star Race victory too long in the past, the perennial Most Popular Driver got in on the Fan Vote and finished a mediocre 14th of 21. Yes, back then he was driving the same equipment as Jimmie Johnson. At least now, after a resurgence, Earnhardt, Jr. doesn’t need the Fan Vote this time around.
2012: Bobby Labonte; finished 19th Another driver in badly underfunded equipment, Labonte never stood a chance, though the 2000 champ did beat a few top-tier drivers despite his car.
2013: Danica Patrick; finished 20th Patrick finished 20th, last among those still running at the end, struggling throughout the race to keep pace. It’s a tough event for a rookie to conquer, and Patrick, with little NASCAR experience, was at a disadvantage from the start. She appears to be a leading candidate to repeat as the top vote getter, though.
With the numbers laid out, it’s hard to say that the Fan Vote winner is relevant in the All-Star Race. There have been times where the experience was almost a blow to the vote winner’s dignity if he or she was outclassed by either equipment or ability. As great as some of these drivers’ personalities are, no matter how hard they’ve worked with an underfunded team, or how great their potential, there’s a reason they didn’t race their way into the featured event in the first place. Yes, some fans will be disappointed, but aren’t some fans disappointed after every race? That’s part of being a sports fan.
Is it time to ditch the Fan Vote as an entry into the All-Star Race? Some fans are in favor of doing so. There’s a solid argument for ditching the process — this event is a race for winners, not a popularity contest — and many resent the inclusion of the top vote getter in the race. On the other hand, it does allow a group of fans who would not see their favorite driver in the event to have a reason to watch. It lets fans say to one driver, “Hey, we know times are tough, but we still support you.”
But is a feel-good story enough to overcome the reason the Fan Vote winner has to get in that way? A few years ago, it might have boosted ratings, but now, fans aren’t fooled. Maybe it’s time to give up the ghost and say goodbye to something that seemed like a good idea at the time but hasn’t panned out in a decade of trying.
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