Opinion: NASCAR drivers view All-Star Race fan vote as good news, bad news
Chase Elliott, who has won the fan vote to earn a bid into the NASCAR All-Star Race the past three years, can’t win it this year after earning an automatic spot in the 19-car field.
That stands as good news for those who haven’t qualified, creating genuine intrigue of who could earn the final spot in the main 90-lap exhibition race Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. But those drivers mostly don’t want to hear that because winning the fan vote delivers a mixed bag of feelings for competitors who know they could use their share of the $1 million winner's purse and feel grateful for fan support but also face the cruel realization they didn’t race their way into the field.
Fifteen drivers have automatically qualified as regular-season race winners from 2018-2019, former All-Star winners or past Cup champions.
The remaining drivers vie for a spot through the 50-lap Monster Energy Open (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET), with each of the three stage winners earning a bid to the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race (8 p.m. ET). Then a spot remains for the driver with the most online votes through noon Friday, a way for NASCAR to have a similarity to other sports’ all-star events.
(From left to right) Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, and AJ Allmendinger won the stages in the 2018 Monster Energy Open, while Chase Elliott (right) won the fan vote to qualify for the NASCAR All-Star Race. (Photo: Brian Lawdermilk, Getty Images)
Some drivers wish they weren't on ballot
For a driver such as Kyle Larson, who has five career Cup wins but hasn’t won since September 2017 at Richmond Raceway, winning the fan vote would rank, well, as just another sign of his losing streak.
“I’d rather not rely on the fan vote,” said the 27-year-old, who was second in voting as of Thursday afternoon. “I actually wish they didn’t have the fan vote. … I’m a competitor, so if I don’t make into the All-Star Race, I really don’t feel like I deserve to be in it.
“It’s great I’m second in the fan vote, and it would be nice to feel like I have the most fans in the B-Main, but it’s whatever.”
Alex Bowman, who has finished second in the three races leading into the All-Star Race, has gone from third in the voting as of May 7 to lead the voting as of Thursday. The 26-year-old has some popularity as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s handpicked replacement to wheel the Hendrick Motorsports' No. 88 car.
“We’re going to win before that,” Bowman said prior to the Kansas race, where he nearly made good on his prediction. “Don’t vote for me.
“Can I just take my name off the ballot? I just want to go win and race my way in, the way it should be.”
Social media engagement could be key
Matt DiBenedetto, who has used the fan vote to try to shed the “DiBurrito” nickname people gave him in favor of his preferred nickname of Guido (his middle name), was leading the voting as of May 7 but sat third Thursday afternoon.
“(Racing in) is the ultimate goal and the plan,” 28-year-old DiBenedetto said. “But it is also nice to have the support of everybody and the ‘Vote for Guido’ campaign and the cool response we got to the nickname.”
When Josh Wise upset Danica Patrick for the fan vote in 2014, he had the support of the Reddit internet community with his cryptocurrency Dogecoin scheme. DiBenedetto has used the internet forum to engage fans, and it appears to have paid dividends.
“You’ve got guys like DiBenedetto that hacks Reddit and Reddit hacks the voting system and he’s going to win,” said Bowman, who wasn’t implying anything nefarious when sitting third a week ago. “I think Matty D has got it in the bag.
“You see what Josh did with Reddit support five years ago? Having the support of internet forums is pretty big when it comes to online votes.”
Bubba Wallace, the only full-time African-American driver, was fourth in the voting as of Thursday afternoon and William Byron, Bowman's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, was fifth.
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Experimenting for All-Star Race and future
Racing into the All-Star exhibition appears as unpredictable as the fan vote. NASCAR will use the All-Star Race to experiment with two pieces that it might want to use in its new 2021 car. One is a radiator duct system that comes out through the hood, which potentially could cool the engine enough that teams could use an engine for more races (cutting costs). Cars also will have a single-piece carbon fiber front splitter/pan that can impact front downforce.
NASCAR issued the pieces in the last two weeks to the teams in order to keep them from working with them in the wind tunnel.
So if a driver doesn’t get a handle on the changes, he will have to rely on the fan vote. Kasey Kahne is the only driver since NASCAR instituted fan voting in 2004 to win the $1 million prize after getting in the race with the fan vote.
“You can’t turn it down,” Larson said. “It would be cool to get the fan vote, but I would feel a little embarrassed by it as well.”
Bob Pockrass is a FOX Sports NASCAR reporter. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass.
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