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Earnhardt Jr. takes popular vote

NEW YORK -- The fans made it official -- again. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the most popular driver in NASCAR's Nextel Cup series.

For the second straight year, Earnhardt drew the most votes in
online balloting for the National Motorsports Press Association's
Most Popular Driver Award.

"It was fun to win it last year, but to get two in a row really
means a lot to me,'' said Earnhardt, who won a career-high six
races in 2004 and finished fifth in the season standings. "I've
learned this year about how loyal and supportive my fans are. My
team had our best season ever, but we also had a lot of trouble
along the way, including my injuries.''

Earnhardt was burned in a crash during a sports car event in
California and had to use a relief driver in two races. Junior also
faced adversity when he was docked 25 points by NASCAR after
uttering a vulgarity during a live TV interview in October after
winning a race in Talladega.

"I used to worry about losing my fans after a bad race or two,
but I found out this year the fans really got behind me when I
needed it the most,'' he said. "It's a big compliment to have that
many fans voting for me and letting me know they're supportive and
loyal, no matter what.''

Earnhardt led from the start of the season and wound up with
1,487,512 of the record 3.8 million votes cast. Jeff Gordon was
next with 496,362, followed by Kevin Harvick with 249,228.

Junior joins Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Bill Elliott and
Darrell Waltrip as the only drivers to win the award at least two
consecutive years since it began in 1956. Earnhardt and his late
father, a seven-time NASCAR champion, are the only father-son
combination to have won NASCAR's oldest off-track honor.

The award is sponsored by Pillsbury's Grands Biscuits.

Drink up
Taking advantage of NASCAR's recent decision to
allow sponsorships by companies that make distilled spirits,
Richard Childress Racing announced Friday that Dave Blaney's No. 07
Chevrolet will be sponsored in the Cup series in 2005 by Jack
Daniel's.

"A lot of things had to happen for this to take place,''
Childress said. "Jack Daniel's will be a great partner and the
company has always believed in placing emphasis on responsibility
and moderation.''

Jack Daniel's joins Crown Royal, which will sponsor reigning
series champion Kurt Busch's Roush Racing entry.

RCR will also field Cup cars in 2005 for Kevin Harvick and Jeff
Burton.

Pettys honored
Kyle and Pattie Petty are the recipients of
the 2004 Myers Brothers Award, given annually by the National
Motorsports Press Association for outstanding contributions to the
sport of auto racing.

The Pettys were honored for their part in starting the Victory
Junction Gang Camp, a summer home for chronically ill children. The
camp, dedicated to the memory of their son, Adam, who died in the
crash of a race car in 2000, opened in June 2004 near their
Randleman, N.C., home.

"It is big for us personally,'' Kyle Petty said. "For Pattie
and myself because of Adam. But, for me, it's big because this
community of racing did it. The community built that camp. Not Kyle
Petty. Not Pattie Petty.

"Everything the media printed, everything the drivers did,
everything the drivers' fans did, everything the sponsors did,
that's why the camp is there and that's why there are kids coming
of that camp that are pretty special kids.''

The award is named for the late Billy and Bob Myers, both NASCAR
pioneers.

Long trip
Nextel Cup driver John Andretti will leave Saturday
for a seven-day tour of Navy facilities in the Middle East.

"I feel obligated to try and do something for our military,''
Andretti said Friday. "The Navy contacted me and has been very
accommodating. I'm looking forward to visiting with the sailors.''

Andretti will fly to Bahrain, then visit several ships
throughout the Middle East and distribute racing memorabilia to the
sailors.

"I'm not in the military, and I don't know if those guys want
me, but the least I can do is go over and support them,'' he said.
"I can bring some things over to our brave men and women and
hopefully make their stay better.''

Awards
Driver Tony Stewart, who has raised money for a
variety of charities, was given the $100,000 USG Person of the Year
Award. He immediately donated it to the Victory Junction Gang Camp.
... Ryan Newman, who led the Cup series with nine poles, was given
the $100,000 Bud Pole Award for the third straight year. ... The
$75,000 Mechanix Wear Pit Crew of the Year Award went to Jimmie
Johnson's No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team, while Matt Kenseth
picked up $75,000 for the Waste Management Picking Up Places Award
that goes to the driver who improved on his starting positions the
most during the year. ... The late Randy Dorton, the chief engine
builder for Hendrick Motorsports, who was killed in an October
plane crash, was honored as Clevite Engine Builder of the Year. The
award was accepted by his widow, Diane Dorton. ... Jimmie Johnson,
second to Kurt Busch in the season points, was given the $75,000
Outback Steakhouse Bloomin' Favorite Driver of the Year Award. ...
Jeff Gordon won the $75,000 Wix Filters Lap Leader Award. Crew
chief Robbie Loomis accepted the award for Gordon, who had the flu.