CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The rules surrounding Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race continue to change, and fans are concerned the latest tweak is meant to benefit Danica Patrick.
Among a handful of changes announced Wednesday was a clarification that the winning driver of the Sprint Fan Vote must only have a car in raceable condition to advance into the All-Star Race. That counters earlier announcements that said the winner of the fan vote must finish on the lead lap of the Sprint Showdown preliminary race.
NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp says the earlier reference to finishing on the lead lap was simply miscommunication on NASCAR's part.
But fans pounced on the tweak, believing it was to benefit Patrick, who has struggled on intermediate tracks this year but is currently among the top five vote getters.
It's unlikely that the change will affect the outcome. The last 2 years, all but one of the cars running at the conclusion of the Showdown was on the lead lap. And, barring an accident or a mishap, the format of two 20-lap segments means it would be difficult for Patrick to be lapped based on performance.
Patrick, who won the fan vote last year as the most popular driver in the Nationwide Series, is inside the top five headed into Saturday along with Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, Martin Truex Jr. and Michael Waltrip. The top two finishers in the Showdown advance into the $1 million main event, as does the winner of the fan vote.
Among other changes announced Wednesday, the qualifying order will be set by random draw because there's no pit crew competition this year to determine the order. Time trials will include a total time for three laps, including a four-tire pit stop.
New is that there will be no pit-road speed, and the pit crew cannot go over the wall until the car has come to a complete stop.
The no speed limit was intriguing to at least one driver.
"Wow!! Qual for @sprint all star race is going to b exciting!!" tweeted Kyle Busch. "NO pit road speed coming in or going out. Not what I had in mind but ok... ?"
The format for the All-Star race was previously announced and basically remains the same at four segments of 20 laps, with an optional pit stop between each segment. NASCAR calls for a mandatory four-tire pit stop before the final 10-lap sprint to the finish.
Drivers will enter pit road for the final stop according to their average finish from the first four segments. That's a change from last year, when drivers entered pit road with the winners of the first four segments at the front of field. The rest of the field entered based on the order of finish from the fourth segment.
But the winning drivers from each segment sandbagged the rest of the segments and drove around at the back of the field. NASCAR is trying to eliminate that this year with the entry to pit road order on the final stop.
Track owner Bruton Smith has also offered a $1 million bonus to any driver who wins all four segments and the race, making it possible for a driver to win a total of $2 million on Saturday night.