NASCAR fans named Dale Earnhardt Jr. their most popular driver for the 15th year in a row in his final season in the series.
"It always comes back to the fans, it really does, and I've got to thank them for keeping the train on the track and rolling all these years," the retiring Earnhardt said of the award as he recieved it at the NASCAR's season-ending gala in Las Vegas on Thursday, where series champ Martin Truex Jr. was also being honored.
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Bill Elliott was the last driver other than Earnhardt to be named most popular driver in 2002, and holds the all-time record with 16 awards, while Dale Earnhardt Sr. was given it posthumously in 2001 after being killed in an accident at the Daytona 500 that year.
NASCAR Chairman Brian France also presented Earnhardt with The Bill France Award of Excellence on Thursday. The award is not presented every year.
"It is for the ultimate contribution to the sport that they love, sometimes it is off the track, sometimes it is on, and sometimes it is both," France said.
Earnhardt was appreciative of the award and said he's always done his best to represent the sport his family has been such a huge part of for decades.
"I always tell people all the time, all I wanted to do was be able to pay my bills and be able to race a long time," Earnhardt said. "I've always tried to take a lot of pride in taking the sport to new places and introducing it to new people."
He then tried to turn the attention to Truex, his good friend and former driver. Truex won two second-tier series titles driving for Earnhardt before Truex graduated to the Cup Series. Earnhardt told a story Thursday night of how his father, the late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, stressed to his son to celebrate after his first Cup victory.
Now a married man expecting his first child next year, he said he finally understands what his father meant: there's only one chance to celebrate firsts, and he vowed to party hard Thursday night in celebration of Truex's first Cup title.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report