Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR’s most popular driver for the seventh consecutive year.
Earnhardt’s win keeps him at third on the career list behind Bill Elliott‘s record 16 times selected as the most popular driver, and Richard Petty, who won the award nine times. The award, which is sponsored by Chex and presented by the National Motorsports Press Association, has been given since 1965 and voted on by fans.
Earnhardt, who is not part of the 12 drivers being celebrated this weekend in Las Vegas, took some time to get to the stage during Thursday’s awards ceremony.
“They nearly stuck me up there in the top row,” he said after finally getting to the podium.
“I take a lot of honor in (the award) it and a lot of pride. I know it’s kind of a cliche, but I just wanted to be a race-car driver, wanted to be able to make a living showing up, driving cars every week. Having the fan support like I have has been an incredible bonus for me.
“I can’t thank them enough, so I guess I’ll just keep showing up.”
Earnhardt, in his second season with Hendrick Motorsports, finished 25th in the standings. His Hendrick teammates went 1-2-3, as Jimmie Johnson won his fourth straight championship to lead the sweep.
Earnhardt flew to Las Vegas just in time to accept the award, and planned to leave immediately after. Because of his hectic travel schedule, he said he’s trying to have a quiet offseason with friends and family and enjoy the new home he built and moved into about two weeks ago.
But he didn’t consider skipping the ceremony – something he did several years ago when he accepted the award via taped message. Earnhardt said he “learned my lesson” after receiving a good bit of backlash for not showing up in person.
Missing the party
It’s time for NASCAR’s big bash. But the fact that it’ll go on without its biggest star — again — is a problem, Jeff Owens says.
“I understand how important it is to accept it in person,” he said. “There’s a big sense of that I earned this, that I deserve this because of my family name. My father, he gave me a hell of a gift in popularity, so my job has been to try to be an asset to the sport and to maintain that gift and it’s integrity. The name that my father has built, the Earnhardt name, and the respect that it has.
“So there’s a lot of emotions that run through when I accept the award.”
Denny Hamlin had minor knee surgery planned for the end of this season, but delayed the procedure after booking a suite with a basketball court inside of it for his stay in Las Vegas.
Since arriving Tuesday evening, Hamlin said he and his friends have gotten in at least three games a day on the court. His surgery will be Dec. 16.
“I moved my surgery back because I had this reserved for the last two months,” he said. “It was scheduled for last week, and I thought there would be no point in it. I moved my surgery back to accommodate my hotel room in Vegas, so I’m trying to get all the ball in that I can since I’m going to be out for a month.”
Crew chief choices
Kurt Busch figured he’s still about a week away from finding a crew chief to lead his Penske Racing team.
The candidates have been whittled down to about three, and Busch said two were from other race teams and one was already at Penske. He wouldn’t reveal who he’s talking to, but the candidates are believed to include Dave Winston, his current engineer, and Steve Addington, who was fired in October as crew chief for Busch’s younger brother, Kyle, at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“We’ve talked with a few guys on the outside, we have an internal guy that we want to bump up,” Busch said. “It’s still a work in progress. We haven’t decided. I was hoping to have a decision and an announcement this week. But we won’t have that.”
The void was created when Pat Tryson decided to move to Michael Waltrip Racing to crew chief for Martin Truex Jr.
Busch said he’s part of a four-man team at Penske looking for Tryson’s replacement, joining owner Roger Penske, team president Tim Cindric and vice president of operations Michael Nelson.
“There’s still somebody out there I’d like to talk to,” Busch said. “I haven’t found, necessarily, the guy you’d want to jump on top of and go to.”
Busch said leadership is a key quality he’s looking for in his new crew chief.
“You need to have a guy who fits into the Penske mold, as far as an engineering background, but yet I like a car guy, somebody that knows how to turn the wrenches and throws things in and out of the car right off his hip,” Busch said.