By JENNA FRYER, Associated Press
CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew he had a free pass into the All-Star race.
But he didn't want to get into the $1 million race that way.
Instead, Earnhardt led all 40 laps of Saturday night's Sprint Showdown to race his way into the main event at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"I feel real fortunate to have drove my way into the All-Star race," Earnhardt said. "My fans work hard to vote, and I never assume that I'm going to win the vote. The fan support is a gift and I never take it for granted. We feel real lucky to have an opportunity to race. We're going to enjoy it having earned our way in this year."
Earnhardt won the All-Star race in 2000, and with it came a 10-year exemption into the event. It expired last season, and NASCAR's most popular driver used the fan vote to make the race. This time, he battled Martin Truex Jr. around the track for the first lap, surged ahead before the flagstand, and never looked back.
He starts 21st in the 23-car All-Star race field.
"We would love to win a million dollars, and we are pumped up," he said. "We think we have a good shot."
He thinks he's got the Chevrolet to do it, too.
He squandered the fan vote last year, finishing 14th in the field. Months later, crew chief Steve Letarte admitted to the driver he didn't bring him the best car.
"I don't inquire about the cars leading up to the race, I just assume we're taking what he believes to be the best car for that event," he said. "We didn't bring our best bullet to the fight. He told me this year they were going to put a little more emphasis on this event."
Pole-sitter AJ Allmendinger had a flat tire headed to the green flag, and was forced to pit at the start of the race. But he drove through the field and passed Jamie McMurray right before the white flag to earn the second transfer position.
Allmendinger, in his first season with Penske Racing with the team that won this race in 2010 with Kurt Busch, praised his crew for changing his tire fast enough that he didn't go a lap down.
"Everybody in the 22 car is used to winning and being in this race; I wasn't going to let them down," Allmendinger said. "I was going to do everything I could to get into (the All-Star race) or I was going to wreck trying."
Bobby Labonte finished 12th, but because Earnhardt didn't need the fan vote, he won it based on being the second-highest vote getter. It was a bonus for the 2000 NASCAR champion, who had not even planned on running in the Showdown.
"Two weeks ago, we really weren't even going to show up because this is not in our budget to run this race," said Labonte, who drives for single-car team JTG-Daugherty Racing.
"Thank the fans for doing that. That is a great honor, obviously. I've been doing this a long time, and always try to do the right thing. That's where it pays off."
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