Clint Bowyer and AJ Allmendinger have added themselves to the field of Saturday night's $1 million Sprint All-Star exhibition race after finishing first and second respectively in Friday evening's Sprint Showdown.
By clinching the top two spots across the line in Friday's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the pair join the 19 drivers already eligible for the All-Star event by virtue of having won a race in 2013/4 or by being previous All-Star or Sprint Cup champions.
The Showdown took the unique format of two 20-lap segments with a pre-scheduled caution at the midway point. Allmendinger quickly took the lead from polewinner Austin Dillon on the first lap, and Bowyer was equally quick to move up into second position having started from fourth on the grid.
There was a rapid caution on lap 3 when Marcus Ambrose spun out in turn 2 after making multiple contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the Australian almost collecting his Richard Petty Motorsport team mate Aric Almirola in the process. Allmendinger got the best of the restart, which was particularly poor for Kyle Larson who was suffering from gearbox issues, but Bowyer put him under sustained pressure and took the lead on lap 19 just before the midrace caution.
Bowyer took four tyres at the optional pit stop at the cost of dropping to sixth place for the restart, while Dillon and Allmendinger were among those taking only two. Michael Annett tried staying out but was quickly swallowed up by the chasing pack, allowing Dillon to reclaim the lead for three laps at the restart. Pretty soon Bowyer's fresh set of tyres gave him the advantage, and he cleared Allmendinger for second place and then passed Dillon for the lead on lap 24, after which he sailed off to a convincing 2.5s lead at the chequered flag to put himself into the All-Star Race.
"We came here with a little bit different setup than we've been running at these mile-and-a-half [ovals]," said Bowyer, who has been struggling a little in Sprint Cup Series races so far this season and especially last week at Kansas, and who was seeking a new direction this weekend. "It's a huge improvement. I'm really excited about all of this. I'm really more excited about the way our car handled [than the All-Star Race.]
"It's not too many sporting events in the world that pay a million bucks to win, and it's nice to have a shot at it tomorrow night," he added.
Allmendinger quickly secured second place for himself to clinch the second transfer spot, finishing almost two seconds ahead of Casey Mears. Ambrose rallied from his earlier misfortune to finish in fourth place just ahead of Almirola, while Larson overcame his gear problems to pick up sixth place ahead of Stenhouse and Dillon.
The final place in the All-Star race went to Phil Parsons Racing's Josh Wise who was the surprise winner of the fan vote after getting huge support from online contributors to the Reddit.com site who had campaigned on his behalf. "That's unreal," said Wise after he learned the outcome. "I can't believe that. That's amazing. Thank you everybody watching.
"This is huge for me and our team ... I am still trying to wrap my head around it," he added. "Really this started with a 16-year-old kid posting something on Reddit.com about some good runs that we had and for whatever reason this huge, awesome community got behind us."
Wise beat last year's fan vote winner Danica Patrick, who will now not take part in Saturday night's exhibition event for the $1 million prize purse. “It is what it is,” said Patrick, clearly disappointed to lose out. "I know my fans voted a lot and I understand that I actually had more votes this year than I did last year by a fair amount.
"That's what it is, it's outside sources that are in control," she added. "I don't doubt them [my fans] at all. But it is what it is this time around."
Full race results are available