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Allmendinger, Labonte surprise in Showdown

May 19, 2012, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Earnhardt Jr. dominates qualifier, joins other two in All-Star Race

One of them pulled off the race track with a flat tire before he even reached the green flag. One of them wasn't supposed to compete in the event. And yet A.J. Allmendinger and Bobby Labonte found themselves in the Sprint All-Star Race on Saturday night, though they took very different routes to get there.

Allmendinger regrouped from a flat tire on the pace laps with a furious charge that resulted in a second-place finish in the Sprint Showdown qualifier, which came with an automatic transfer into the main event. Labonte found himself as the surprise fan vote winner after heavy favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. easily won the preliminary race to grab his spot in the exhibition extravaganza.

"You've got to go right out of the gate, and that really comes down to the team."


Labonte, who was ticketed for speeding on pit road in the Showdown and finished 12th of 22 cars, was surprised to be voted into the big show. A total of 2.4 million votes were cast by fans.

"Yeah, obviously," Labonte said. "You just don't know. You wait until the end and obviously you found out. You always want to be, and you'd like to be, and there are a lot of great race-car divers in this event that could easily get this same type of vote. But thank the fans for doing it. That is a great honor."

Labonte wasn't the only thankful driver. Showdown pole-winner Allmendinger pulled off the track with a flat as the field approached the green flag. But the misfortune turned into a nifty bit of accidental pit strategy, allowing the Penske Racing driver to stay out and pass Jamie McMurray in a fender-banging battle for the second-place spot.

"I gave it everything I had," Allmendinger said. "If I didn't make it, I didn't want to it be for a lack of trying. Everything in this organization, especially on the 22 car, they're used to winning, they're used to being in this race. And I wasn't going to let them down. I was going to do everything I could to get them in there, or I was going to wreck trying."

Nobody could catch Earnhardt, who took the lead after Allmendinger hit the pits, stayed out during the caution in between segments, and stayed out front for the entire 40 laps. Just as he had hoped, Earnhardt raced his way into the event he won in 2000 rather than needing to rely on the fan vote to get him in.

"I've got to give most of the credit for our performance to the team," Earnhardt said. "They put a great car out on the line today that was fast right out of the gate. You set cars up and you bring cars to race track each weekend, and you're good on the short run or good on the long run. ... Tonight, you have to go, right out of the gate. You don't have time to wait on the car. ... You've got to go right out of the gate, and that really comes down to the team."

Earnhardt's performance in the preliminary race was no surprise, but Labonte's presence was, given that only a few weeks ago his JTG/Daugherty team was thinking about skipping All-Star weekend because of financial reasons.

"Two weeks ago, we weren't even going to show up here because this is not in our budget to run this race," Labonte said. "Guys stepped up, so we got this far. Hopefully we can just keep going."