- Associated Press - Thursday, December 1, 2011

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. was named NASCAR’s most popular driver for the ninth consecutive year.

Earnhardt’s string of most-popular-driver awards is only one shy of Bill Elliott’s record 10 straight titles. Elliott won the award 16 times overall and 10 straight from 1991 through 2000. He then asked to not be included any more in the voting.

“I’m pretty sure my fans wear this award as a badge of honor, as they should because the award is theirs,” Earnhardt said Thursday at NASCAR’s year-end luncheon. “Their efforts allow me to be here today to accept it so I not only thank them but congratulate them on winning the most popular driver award.

“It’s a privilege to compete in front of millions of fans every week and the credit goes to them for the success the sport has had since the beginning.”

Earnhardt also joked he was glad voting was not based solely on the season finale at Homestead, where Tony Stewart used a powerful drive to win the race and his third championship.

“It would have gone to that guy right there, Tony Stewart,” said Earnhardt, who congratulated the driver, crew chief Darian Grubb and the Stewart-Haas Racing team.

“Their performance in the Chase is one for the history books.”

Earnhardt finished seventh in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship _ his best showing in six years.

Later, Earnhardt cleared up speculation about his love life and said he’s not engaged to longtime girlfriend Amy Reimann.

Earnhardt got people talking during a “Newlywed Game” program for the 12 Chase drivers held Wednesday in downtown Las Vegas. Asked by host Bob Eubanks which driver wife would win a wet T-shirt contest, Earnhardt answered, “I’m going to say my future wife.”

Talk immediately began about a potential Earnhardt engagement.

“We’re good,” he said. “I’m enjoying my relationship but I’m in no way ready to be married.”

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