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Junior is NASCAR's most popular driver for eighth straight year

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

LAS VEGAS -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. won NASCAR's most popular driver award for the eighth consecutive year Thursday, and thanked his loyal fan base for supporting him through another disappointing season.

"They just keep plugging away each year for you, and want you to do good and it just motivates you to keep going to the track and keep working hard," he said. "It just means a ton every time."

Earnhardt received the award Thursday at the annual NMPA Myers Brothers Awards luncheon. He is third in most popular driver awards behind the 16 won by Bill Elliott and nine by Richard Petty.

And he continues to collect the trophy despite lackluster results on the race track. Winless over the last two seasons, he finished a career-worst 25th in the final standings last year and 21st in 2010.

Earnhardt is one of only two father-son combinations to have won the award. His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., won it in 2001, the same season he was killed in an accident on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Petty's father, Lee, won the award in its first two years, 1953 and 1954.

Earnhardt said he initially thought his fan support was because of his father.

"When I was racing in Myrtle Beach, people would ask me for my autograph and I assumed it was only because of my relationship with my father," he said. "Then there came a point in my career where I become more successful and I felt like I was earning my own core of fans. Then you would hear fans say that they liked you, they didn't like your dad, but like you. That was kind of cool."

The award, which is sponsored by Hamburger Helper, received more than 1.5 million votes throughout 2010. Fans could vote once a day, and Earnhardt beat out, in alphabetical order: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart.

The final result wasn't a surprise, but Earnhardt said he continues to appreciate the award.

"The first year we won the most popular driver award, I was just blown away. Didn't expect I would have an opportunity in this sport filled with so much talent and so much great personality," he said. "We just keep winning it and the fans are just truly real loyal. I kind of have a sense of what that's like because of the sports that I follow and the loyalty no matter what happens, you are there every year, you stick with them no matter what.

"Each year that I've won it, it just means more and more."