COMMENTARY | Heading into this Saturday's All-Star Race at Charlotte, it's pretty clear that one person is the overwhelming favorite to receive the fan vote that puts the final driver into the big show from the Sprint Showdown. Her name is Danica Patrick, if you haven't guessed yet.
But there was one caveat that I had not thought of: Last year, only drivers on the lead lap at the end of the Showdown could be voted on to the big race.
Not so fast, NASCAR now says.
Despite having said earlier in the year that only a lead-lap car could be voted in, there's now a little flip-flopping going on. On Wednesday, the rules were clarified by NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp, who said a car only has to be in raceable condition to be voted on to the All-Star Race by fans.
Call me a conspiracy theorist if you like, but there is no way that this decision was made without Danica on the minds of NASCAR officials.
It's just common sense. She is, despite her struggles in her rookie season, arguably the biggest name on track other than Dale Earnhardt Jr. Having her in the All-Star Race will be huge for the ratings. And if you look at her finishes this year, she rarely finishes on the lead lap. Mostly, she is laps down.
While it's unlikely she'll get lapped so quickly at Charlotte (the Showdown is only 40 laps), it's still a possibility. And NASCAR, no doubt, wanted to avoid their worst-case scenario - Danica missing the All-Star Race due to ineligibility from being a lap down in the Showdown.
There is some argument to be made on the other side, as apparently this lead-lap rule was in place last year but not the previous two years. But even so, why go back to the old rule? What is the point?
Think about it. If you're not good enough to even stay on the lead lap in a race against people who aren't winning races, how in the world are you going to be able to compete in an All-Star Race against the best in the Cup series? You're going to be a sitting duck out there once you advance.
There is no logical reason a car that's a lap down should be able to move on to the All-Star race via fan vote, but alas it may happen on Saturday. Even if Danica gets off to a bad start in the Showdown and gets lapped, it's a safe bet that she'll get voted in - and go a lap or laps down in that race too.
What's the lesson of all this? When there is a superstar in the NASCAR world, there will be rules changed to accommodate them so they can be in the public eye as much as possible .
NASCAR denies the rule change is about Danica, of course, but the public should be suspicious in this situation.
I know It's not the end of the world by any stretch of the imagination. Worst-case scenario, she gets in the All-Star Race and runs terrible; no harm, no foul as long as she stays out of the way of the leaders.
But it's a matter of principle in the minds of many, including myself. Rewarding someone who can't even manage to stay on the lead lap in the Showdown (whether it would be Danica Patrick or someone else) is just plain stupid and contributes nothing to the quality of the All-Star Race.
And I don't see how anyone could argue otherwise.
... And The Good News
Getting away from this ridiculousness for a minute, let's talk about the good changes NASCAR has made this year to the All-Star Race.
Instead of just allowing the winners of the four segments to be automatically lined up at the front when the final 10-lap shootout begins, the starting order for the final segment will now be determined based on the average finish by a driver in the four previous segments.
This is much more of a common-sense approach and ensures that drivers will have to race hard all night and not just hang out in the back after winning a segment, as we've seen in the past.
This means we're going to see a much better race this year, as everyone will be jockeying to finish as high as possible in all four segments. In a 10-lap shootout, if you don't start right up front, chances are you will not win. So all night the action should be fast and furious, to the fans' delight.
Bottom line: No sandbagging allowed, or you won't win this race on Saturday.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.
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