NASCAR All-Star Race 2013: Did NASCAR tweak a rule that favors Danica Patrick winning fan vote?

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

In a non-points race devised for fan entertainment, is it really a bad thing if NASCAR tweaked a rule to give Danica Patrick an edge?

On the surface it shouldn't be a big deal.

It was merely a tweak to a rule -- or as NASCAR told USA Today, a "simple oversight" -- stating that any driver who finished the preliminary Sprint Showdown with a car in "raceable condition" was eligible to receive the fan vote to gain entry into the All-Star Race.

This is in contrast to last year when a driver had to finish on the lead lap to be eligible and different from a press release sent out earlier this season by NASCAR, clearly stating that a lead lap finish was required if a driver was to move on to the All-Star Race via the fan vote.

The hubbub of course is whether NASCAR is changing the rules to accommodate a particular individual who is otherwise not eligible for the All-Star Race but is considered to be one of the more popular drivers in the sport.

That driver in question is Danica Patrick, who will presumably win the fan vote by a comfortable margin.

However, Patrick has struggled in her rookie campaign to be competitive, especially on mile-and-a-half tracks where in three races this season she has yet to finish on the lead lap. And coincidentally, Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the All-Star Race will be contested, just so happens to be a 1.5-mile oval.

Conceivably there was a chance that without the modification, Patrick could have not qualified for the fan vote because she finished a lap down or more. However, what's the point of having fans determine who they want to see race if who they select is deemed ineligible for some arbitrary reason?

All this, however, is likely much ado about nothing as the Sprint Showdown will be contested in two 20-lap intervals with the winner and runner-up advancing to the All-Star Race. If the last two years are an indication, the odds favor a driver making it to the finish line on the same lap as the winner.

In 2012, all 15 drivers who were running at the end of the Showdown were scored on the lead lap. It was the same story the year before when all 21 finishers completed the entire distance.

But what Wednesday's announcement does is shine a light on a bigger issue.

Under its current formula, is the All-Star Race truly an "all-star" race in its purest state, a non-points event featuring the best drivers and teams from the current season?

Or is the All-Star Race nothing more than a popularity contest, where officials devise a format that involves the biggest names which will pump ticket sales and increase television ratings?

We all know the answer to this question. Because the truth is the large majority of fans would rather see Tony Stewart racing under the lights for $1 million than, say, Aric Almirola.

And there is nothing wrong with this line of thinking.

The point is that in no discernible terms is Stewart, who has just a lone top 10 through 11 races and is ranked 21st in points, having a season which can be described as "all-star" worthy. Whereas Almirola has a four top 10s, sits ninth overall and would qualify for the Chase if the playoffs were starting today.

In no way is this saying Almirola is a better a driver than Stewart, but simply when you compare their respective years head-to-head, it is Almirola and not Stewart who deserves the honor.

But that isn't what the All-Star Race is about. It never has been and it never will be.

The All-Star is pomp and circumstance and a break from the monotonous nature of a schedule cluttered with 400- and 500-mile races. It's a NASCAR tradition and a happening that fans anxiously await for each year.

So while it may seem like NASCAR is playing favorites and Patrick is being given an honor she otherwise doesn't deserve, in this case it doesn't apply. All NASCAR is doing is what it's always done and giving fans the show -- and driver -- they want to see in a race that doesn't officially count.

What's so wrong with that?

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