NASCAR's 2010 Most Popular Driver Award rested with the winner. For the eighth consecutive year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. claimed the honor -- tops among the 1.5 million fan votes -- once again proving his popularity is soaring even if his on-track efforts have fallen flat.
"Oh yeah, I was surprised,'' Earnhardt claimed moments after accepting the award during NASCAR Champion's Week. "You just never know. There's the performance factor we've suffered from on the race track, there's the new guys coming into the sport all the time. You never take it for granted.''
The same could be said for winning.
Earnhardt hasn't won a race in nearly three seasons and hasn't even been consistently competitive in the No. 88 National Guard-Amp Energy Chevrolet, while his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson will be crowned champion for the fifth consecutive year in Friday night's lavish NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Banquet at the Wynn Las Vegas.
The juxtaposition isn't lost on the third-generation driver, son of the late seven-time champion, Dale Earnhardt. The 2004 Daytona 500 champ and 18-race winner is hoping a three-way crew chief swap at Hendrick will infuse new life into his career. And it can't happen soon enough.