Dale Earnhardt Jr. no All-Star Race shoo-in

March, 9, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kasey Kahne seemed shocked when he was told NASCAR's most popular driver isn't guaranteed a spot in the May Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"He's not in?" Kahne asked of Dale Earnhardt Jr. during a Wednesday news conference at Earnhardt's Whisky River bar in uptown Charlotte. "He'll get voted in, won't he?"

If not, it would be one of the biggest upsets in the sport's history. It might be bigger than Charlie Sheen being fired from "Two and a Half Men."

But as it stands today Earnhardt has to win a Sprint Cup race between now and the event, finish first or second in the preliminary race for all drivers not in the main event or win the fan vote as Kahne did in 2008.

His 10-year exemption as a past All-Star winner ended a year ago.

"It's been [more than] 10 years since he won the race?" Kahne asked after being reminded Earnhardt won the race 11 years ago. "Time flies."

That Earnhardt isn't eligible for the All-Star event arguably was the biggest news on a day when Charlotte Motor Speedway held a news conference to push the event and NASCAR chairman Brian France held a conference call to promote the momentum the sport has enjoyed through the first three weeks.

And there is momentum. Grandstands have been nearly full at Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Television ratings are up significantly, although still below what they were in 2009. Danica Patrick recorded the highest finish ever by a woman in a NASCAR event with her fourth-place finish in the Nationwide race at Phoenix.

But if France wanted to make real news he would have said the governing body plans to eliminate the early off week that threatens to derail any momentum the sport has.

That'll be the case next year with the Daytona 500 moved back a week, but after repeated questions, France wouldn't guarantee it's a long-term plan.

If it isn't, it should be.

Even if things weren't as rosy as they have been, NASCAR needs to build momentum for as long as it can before entering the long summer months. Having an off week for the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series this weekend is like an NFL team getting a bye in Week 3.

Nobody wants it.

"I feel like we just started racing," Kahne said. "It's time to race."

France said there are logistical reasons for why the open week traditionally falls early in the season. There shouldn't be. Make Weeks 2 through 4 a West Coast swing with Phoenix, Las Vegas and California and continue on with Bristol in Week 5. It might save teams money as well.

"All things being equal, we'd like to be racing this weekend," France said. "I don't believe that to be a significant challenge for us. We have a long season. We're going to have open weeks."

But the first doesn't need to come this early, not when fans and drivers are thirsting for something they went December and January without.

"We sit so long over the offseason," Kahne said. "The first three weeks you're kind of happy you're not racing, taking a little break. The next month and a half, myself anyway, I want to get going.

"Once we start you want to race for a while."

Think of it this way, too. An extra race early in the season would give Earnhardt one more chance to make the All-Star Race.

"I'll say he'll either win before or the fans will vote him in," said Kahne, still in disbelief. "He needs to be in that race. He'll be in it."

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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