Ever since the fan vote for Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race began, it's been assumed that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a virtual lock to win it.
After all, the guy has won eight straight NMPA Most Popular Driver awards. What other fan base could possibly beat out Earnhardt Jr.'s legion of devoted followers?
The driver himself, though, has been cautious when addressing the topic. Calling it a "tricky subject," Earnhardt Jr. has gone to great lengths to emphasize that he doesn't believe he's guaranteed to advance from the Sprint Showdown into the main event.
At Dover, he even suggested he wouldn't have a problem going home to drink a beer and watch the race on TV if he somehow failed to qualify for the All-Star Race itself.
Some people apparently took that to mean he didn't care, though, which is hardly the case.
"I guess I was making the point – and going a little overboard –trying to make people understand that I wasn't taking for granted that I'd won the fan vote and I was locked in and I had nothing to worry about," he said.
Earnhardt Jr. is well aware there are several ways he could miss the All-Star event. He could fail to finish on the lead lap or have a damaged car, which would negate the fan vote even if he won it. Or Junior Nation could somehow get out-voted by another group of fans (although that seems next-to-impossible).
As such, his strategy is to go out and win the Sprint Showdown – and make it into the All-Star Race on his own merits.
"I'm just going to go out there and run as hard as that car can go," he said. "I would love to win and get into the All-Star outright. I've paid attention to the last several months, and I know how much the fans have put into voting for me. And should we win the fan vote, it would be because of everything they did. I think they would agree with me they would like to see me win and go in outright – and that's what I'm going to try to do."
But if he's running fourth or fifth late in the race, will Earnhardt Jr. fall into a conservative mode and not try to push the limits if he believes he has the fan vote locked up? He said no.
"The opportunity for us to win the fan vote is definitely in the back of my mind, but I don't think it'll affect me at all how I drive the race," he said. "If we're sitting there in the second segment and I'm running fifth, I promise you that you can guarantee that's all I can get out of it at that time."
There's another reason for that as well: Earnhardt Jr. said his No. 88 team is using the All-Star weekend as a test session for next week's Coca-Cola 600.
"We don't have the ability to do a ton of testing, so these opportunities, you've got to really snatch them up and run through some ideas that have been on your mind," he said.