One run of NASCAR dominance ended this year, when Tony Stewart snapped Jimmie Johnson's streak of five consecutive championships in NASCAR's premier division. But another continued Thursday, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was awarded the sport's most popular driver trophy for a ninth year in a row.
Earnhardt received the award at the annual National Motorsports Press Association/Myers Brothers Luncheon at the Bellagio, and the trophy will go into the case near his sister Kelley's office at JR Motorsports along with the others. And yet, Earnhardt said he never takes the award for granted, and understands there are some other drivers who may be in a position to overtake him one day -- including a certain former open-wheel star whom he helped get started in NASCAR.
Most Popular Driver
"I don't take it for granted, I don't assume I'm going to win it again," he said. "I know when Danica [Patrick] runs in the Cup Series, that she will be a candidate for the award right off the bat. She's quite popular and will definitely bring a new fan base to the sport, as well. And with what Tony has accomplished this year has to endear him to a lot of fans and people who potentially weren't Tony Stewart fans in the past. They may have become Tony Stewart fans. You never know. Anyone who wins this award, it's a great honor, and I'm hoping to continue to win the award again next year, if I'm fortunate enough to do that. If not, I'll be happy and proud for whoever does."
Earnhardt helped launch Patrick's NASCAR career, fielding a JR Motorsports No. 7 car for the driver as she competed in a part-time Nationwide Series schedule the past two seasons. But the bigger threat to his near decade-long reign as most popular driver may well be Stewart, whose championship was received with delirious fervor when it was clinched last month at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Earnhardt acknowledged as much in his speech, paying tribute to the new champion.
"I'm glad they didn't take the vote on the last race," he said. "because it would have gone to that man right there, Tony Stewart."
Earnhardt, a keen student of NASCAR history, said he's always had an appreciation for the award dating back to when Bill Elliott -- who won it a record 16 times, including 10 in a row -- used to dominate it. Earnhardt won similar awards during his late-model days at Myrtle Beach Speedway. Thursday, though, the award was much easier to accept after a competitive season that saw Earnhardt finish seventh in final points, a vast improvement after placing in the 20s the previous two years. Then, he came to Las Vegas only to accept his most popular driver award. Now, he's fully a part of Champion's Week, and will speak at the awards ceremony on Friday night.
"The one thing that's probably the most bothersome is, your fans, they put all this effort into voting for this award and winning this award so you can come get it, and then you go out on the race track and you don't do anything to deserve it, or you don't feel like you do," Earnhardt said. "You don't feel like you give them any reason to cheer. They spend money, they invest, they show up, and there's no reason for them to be excited about it. So that's been a bit of a disappointment over the last couple of years. But when you do run well, and consistent ... it's easier to accept something that somebody is trying to honor you with."