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Monday December 11th, 2017 6:26AM

Earnhardt wins most popular for 15th year

By The Associated Press
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrapped up his final season as a NASCAR driver with one last piece of hardware. He won the Most Popular Driver Award on Thursday night for the 15th consecutive time.

The award is based on a fan vote and sponsored by the National Motorsports Press Association. Only Bill Elliott won the award more than Earnhardt — 16 times between 1984 and 2002 — before he removed his name from consideration.

"It always comes back to the fans, it really does, and I've got to thank them for keeping the train on the track and rolling all these years," said Earnhardt, who retired as a full-time driver following NASCAR's season finale. He will move to NBC's broadcasting team next year.

Earnhardt was presented as NASCAR's most popular driver during the annual season-ending awards ceremony, which is meant to fete all the playoff drivers and Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. But this week has truly been a send-off for Earnhardt, who was also named Grand Marshal for February's season-opening Daytona 500 — just one of the many ambassador gigs the superstar is nabbing for the sport he loves so much.

NASCAR Chairman Brian France also presented Earnhardt with The Bill France Award of Excellence on Thursday. The award is not presented every year.

"It is for the ultimate contribution to the sport that they love, sometimes it is off the track, sometimes it is on, and sometimes it is both," France said.

Earnhardt was appreciative of the award and said he's always done his best to represent the sport his family has been such a huge part of for decades.

"I always tell people all the time, all I wanted to do was be able to pay my bills and be able to race a long time," Earnhardt said. "I've always tried to take a lot of pride in taking the sport to new places and introducing it to new people."

He then tried to turn the attention to Truex, his good friend and former driver. Truex won two second-tier series titles driving for Earnhardt before Truex graduated to the Cup Series. Earnhardt told a story Thursday night of how his father, the late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, stressed to his son to celebrate after his first Cup victory.

Now a married man expecting his first child next year, he said he finally understands what his father meant: there's only one chance to celebrate firsts, and he vowed to party hard Thursday night in celebration of Truex's first Cup title.

Earnhardt was winless in his final season, didn't make the playoffs, and wasn't all that competitive at the end of his 19-year career. But he's beloved by "Earnhardt Nation" and his fans supported him all year during his "Apreci88tion" tour.

His farewell party began earlier this week in a salute from sponsor Nationwide, which Earnhardt turned into a charity event. Fans paid $88 to attend, and proceeds will go to the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. He and wife Amy established a fund at the hospital and contributed the first $88,888.

The next day, Chevrolet named Earnhardt the recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award.

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