Earnhardt wins fan vote as most popular driver for fifth straight year
NEW YORK -- Despite a year of personal upheaval and on-track failures, Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains as popular as ever.
Junior was selected the most popular driver for the fifth straight year, drawing more than 1.5 million of the over 3.8 million votes cast online. The award comes after he decided to leave the NASCAR team founded by his late father to join powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports with a new sponsor and a new car number.
"After the year I had statistically and off the track, that isn't the response I expected from my fans," Earnhardt said Thursday in accepting the honor during a luncheon at which numerous awards and hundreds of thousands of dollars were dispensed by NASCAR and its sponsors.
"Next year, I hope to earn more hardware on the track, too."
Earnhardt is moving from his signature No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc., Budweiser Chevrolet to a No. 88 Hendrick entry, sponsored by a couple of Pepsi products. He said he has not talked with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt, owner of DEI, since they last faced each other at a meeting during his ill-fated negotiations to stay with the family team.
But that doesn't mean he is harboring any kind of grudge about having to move on.
"I don't think it's a closed chapter," Junior said. "I don't want to sound like I'm writing her off for the rest of my life. I want to do right by myself. That's what's important right now.
"If that's something I've got time to fix down the road, then I'll fix it."
Earnhardt said he can hardly wait to join two-time reigning Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears at Hendrick.
"Yeah, I want to start now," he said. "I want to race tomorrow, the Daytona 500. Let's skip all the testing and race the Daytona 500 right now."<
TESTING TONY: Last winter, two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart managed to convince Joe Gibbs Racing officials to let him skip the major test sessions at Daytona.
Stewart has been very open about his disdain for testing.
With JGR switching from Chevrolet to Toyota and the Car of Tomorrow making its Daytona debut in February, this winter's tests could be pivotal. But Stewart isn't all that excited about the upcoming testing.
"I probably need to be there for drafting practice, but I don't need to be there for the rest of it, just running laps all day by myself," he said.
Team president J.D. Gibbs shrugged and grinned when asked if he'll give Stewart a pass on the first couple of days of testing.
"It costs him," Gibbs said, noting that Stewart paid Mike McLaughlin to sit in for him at Daytona last January. "As long as he gets McLaughlin in for a couple of days, we're good to go."
Gibbs said the team, which also includes Denny Hamlin and newcomer Kyle Busch, is looking forward to getting started working with Toyota, which had a rough initial season in Cup.
"It is a big change, obviously," he said. "The cars are what they are, so that's no big deal, just a few cosmetic changes. But the motor is a big deal, so we'll really kick that off the first of the year, get going hot and heavy because we don't have much time.
We're going to have to lean on Toyota to help get us started. But we've been with GM for a long time and we're being real careful about the whole process. Now we're getting real close to being able to go over there and really work on some things.
"We feel real good about it. We don't expect to have any major hiccups or we wouldn't have done it," Gibbs added.<
FRANCE REMEMBERED: The late Bill France Jr., who guided NASCAR into the American mainstream while leading the sport founded by his father, was honored with the National Motorsports Press Association's Myers Brothers Award.
The award, given annually since 1958 in memory of NASCAR pioneers Billy and Bobby Myers, was accepted by France's widow, Betty Jane France.
"This is a great honor," said Mrs. France, whose husband died in June. "Bill was a great leader. He was a man of calculation, common sense and compassion. I know he would have been very proud of this award."<
CHAMPIONS REWARDED: Jimmie Johnson, who repeated as Cup champion this year, is expected to collect more than last year's record take of $15,770,125 this week.
The checks began rolling in Thursday, with Johnson collecting $245,000 and a 24-karat gold replica of his No. 48 Chevrolet.
Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, also was rewarded by Chevrolet, which presented him with the keys to a new Corvette.
"Sometimes your dreams come true, but there's nothing wrong with dreaming again," Knaus said.
AWARDS AND MORE AWARDS: Other awards and honors handed out Thursday included:
--Buddy Shuman Award to retiring team owner Robert Yates for his longtime contributions to the sport of stock car racing.
--Humanitarian Award to Don Miller, retiring president of Penske Racing, for his efforts in establishing and carrying on the Stocks for Tots program, which collects toys and raises money for abused and needy children.
--Rookie of the Year trophy and $50,000 to Juan Pablo Montoya.
--Manufacturers Championship Award to Chevrolet, which won 26 of 36 races in 2007 on the way to its 31st Cup championship.
--Marketing Achievement Award to ESPN, which began airing Cup and Busch Series races again after a six-year absence.
--Pole Award and $100,000 to Jeff Gordon, who led the Cup series with seven poles.
--Commit to Win Award and $75,000 to Jeff Gordon.
--Lap leader Award and $75,000 to Jeff Gordon, who led more than 900 laps in 2007.
--Crew Chief of the Year Award and $100,000 to Mike Ford, second straight year for crew chief for Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing entry.
--Fastest Lap Award and $75,000 to Jimmie Johnson, who had the fastest lap of the race six times.
--Pit Championship Award and $155,000 to the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy driven by Jeff Gordon.
--Most Valuable Pit Crew Award to the crew of Johnson's championship team.
--Command Performance Driver of the Year Award and $100,000 to Kurt Busch.
--Engine Builder of the Year Award and $100,000 to Hendrick Motorsports' Earl Wheeler, who builds engines for Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet and Gordon's No. 24.
--Championship Sponsor Award to Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, Johnson's sponsor, for the second straight year.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index