Ready? OK, here it is: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won NASCAR's most popular driver award.
I know, crazy, right? But this is the world we're living in now. Junior was named the NASCAR National Motorsports Press Association's Most Popular Driver for the ninth straight year.
Junior took the highest number of the nearly 1.5 million votes cast in the 2011 effort, sponsored by Wheaties Fuel. He beat out the other nine finalists: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart.
You know the rest: Junior was honored, he's hoping to build on the momentum of this year, et cetera et cetera. To be sure, this was a turnaround year for Earnhardt, making the Chase after two straight seasons of disappointment, but he still lacks that elusive next win. Even so, the award shows that he's still got the fans' support, no matter how he runs.
Junior still has a ways to go to catch the all-time leader in Most Popular Driver awards; that would be Awesome Bill Elliott with 16. However, Earnhardt could match Elliott's consecutive streak with 10 if he wins again next year.
So, yes, those of you who wonder what all the fuss is over Junior: this is it. He's got a hell of a lot of fans, like it or not. And these are the diehards. Just imagine what would happen if the dude started winning.
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- Jeff Gordon