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Earnhardt, Jr. wins most popular for 15th year

NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his wife Amy attend the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series awards at Wynn Las Vegas on November 30, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. David Becker/Getty Images

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.

Earnhardt retired as a full-time driver following NASCAR season finale, and 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.

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.

--- Associated Press ---