For the first time in ten years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not guaranteed entry into Saturday night's All-Star race. Junior won the 2000 event and has been guaranteed a slot on the basis of that win for the last 10 years, but that automatic provisional has expired.
Of course, Junior will almost certainly make it into the All-Star race, either by finishing in the top two in the Sprint Showdown earlier in the evening, or by winning the fan vote as the last entry into the race.
However, even with the fan vote Junior is not quite guaranteed to make the All-Star race. While NASCAR's most popular driver is a virtual lock to win the fan vote, he would still have to finish on the lead lap of the Sprint Showdown to be eligible for a spot in the All-Star race.
If Junior makes it in on the fan vote, don't discount his chances of winning the All-Star race. History would be on his side.
As recently as 2008, the winner of the fan vote went on to capture the million-dollar prize for winning the main race. Kasey Kahne used that win as a springboard to two points victories within one month.
Although he's sure to get most of the media attention, Junior isn't the only driver to follow this weekend.
Several high-profile drivers must race their way into the All-Star race in the Sprint Showdown. Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers are among the many who hope to earn a ticket to the main event. To do so, and have a shot at the million-dollar prize later that evening, they will have to finish in the top two, and the racing is certain to be fast and furious as the laps wind down.
One of the feel-good stories of the weekend is Regan Smith, who qualified for the All-Star race by virtue of his upset win at Darlington Raceway two weeks ago. Charlotte is one of Smith's better tracks, and he has three top-20 result in four starts there. With the exception of the Darlington race, Smith has tended to fade later in races in 2011. The shorter format of the All-Star race could work in his favor.
Finally, the All-Star race is and always has been known for producing unparalleled drama and action on the track.
Since its inception, the best aspect of the All-Star race has always been that it features the top drivers of the sport going at it for a prize of one million dollars, no holds barred and with no points on the line. All that's at stake is pride, money, and the fierce competitive nature of the world's top drivers.
Last year we saw two teammates at each other's throats. Kyle Busch was as mad at Denny Hamlin as he's been at any driver ever—and that's saying something.
Fans can expect more of the same this year, whether between teammates or not.
Adding excitement to the mix, several new rivalries have been spawned in the last few weeks. From Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya, to Montoya and Jimmie Johnson, to Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, these recent feuds have the potential to erupt at any moment on the track.
Buckle in and enjoy the racing Saturday night. It should be quite a ride!