- Associated Press - Thursday, November 29, 2012

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. tied Bill Elliott’s record of 10 consecutive wins as NASCAR’s most popular driver, and was just as nervous accepting it Thursday as he was when he received his first honor.

“It’s real hard to get up there and express your emotions and express to people how much it means to you,” Earnhardt said. “When you win it repeatedly, it gets tougher to show people and tell people how much it means to you because each time you win it, it means a little bit more. Words do an injustice to spelling out what it really means to you.”

Earnhardt won the award Thursday at the Myers Brothers Luncheon at The Encore at Wynn. The award is presented annually by the National Motorsports Press Association, and Earnhardt has won it every year since 2003.

He thanked his enormous fan base for sticking with him during his acceptance speech.

“Aside from honesty, one of the qualities I admire most in a person is loyalty,” he said. “Loyalty is a word that I use quite often to describe our fans, and as I stand here to accept this award for a 10th time, I think it’s a great example of loyalty in its truest form. I thank the fans, all the fans who support this sport, and I am pleased and humbled and honored to accept this.”

Fans vote from February through September on 10 most popular drivers. The field was then reset and fans voted again through the final 10 weeks of the season.

More than 934,000 votes were cast and Earnhardt beat Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart. Rounding out the top 10 were Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Bobby Labonte.

Elliott and Richard Petty are the only other drivers to win it more than five times. Elliott holds the overall record with 16 most popular awards, but withdrew his name from eligibility following his final win.

Earnhardt had his best season in years, snapping a four-year losing streak with his June 17 victory at Michigan. He was a strong title contender for most of the season, then missed two races during the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with a concussion.

Because he missed the two events, he finished 12th in the final Chase standings and will not be a participant in Friday night’s season-ending awards ceremony. His acceptance of the most popular driver award was his only official role in the champion’s week activities, and Earnhardt admitted there were nerves to getting on stage and speaking in front of the crowd.

“But I take a lot of pride in being able to get an opportunity to tell fans how much I appreciate their support that they have, especially through everything they’ve been through,” he said. “They go through a roller coaster of emotions season after season and they still after all this time have stuck with us, so we must be doing something right. The fans are very loyal.”

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