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Who will succeed Dale Earnhardt Jr. as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver?

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After Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award the last 15 years, maybe a new category will be created for 2018: Most Popular Retired Driver Award.

He’d likely be a shoo-in.

But seriously, now that Earnhardt has won his last MPD award as an active driver, who succeeds him as the sport’s most popular driver in 2018?

Obviously, his will be very large shoes to fill, but there’s a few indicators of who may be Earnhardt Jr.’s successor in the contest, which has been in existence since 1953.

Lost in the shuffle of the announcement of this year’s award is that Earnhardt Jr. earned just over two-thirds (68 percent) of the ballots cast by fans — meaning nearly one-third of the MPD votes went to other drivers.

After Earnhardt, Ryan Blaney was the No. 2 selection for Most Popular Driver, followed by Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Danica Patrick and 2017 NASCAR Cup champ Martin Truex Jr.

Dale Jr. was asked in Las Vegas what his thoughts were about winning the award one last time.

“It was a real honor to accept it again,” Earnhardt said. “I know our fans take a ton of pride in voting for it and take a ton of pride in us winning it. It’s sort of a win for the whole fan base. It was nice to get an opportunity to thank the fans for that.”

When he won his first MPD award in 2003, it’s likely no one – especially Earnhardt – could have envisioned his popularity in the sport grow to the level it has, with millions of members of Junior Nation, not to mention winning the MPD 15 years in a row.

“When I started winning this award, it was all about the popularity of the driver,” Earnhardt said. “As I’ve gotten older, I realize the award represents the sports accessibility.

“It’s what sets us apart from other sports, makes us unique and is something we take seriously. I’ve learned over the years it’s not just a popularity award or about one individual, but it’s really about the entire fan base that cheers not only for that award, but cheers for that driver week in and week out.

“The Myers Brothers Award and Bill France Award, those type of things are so personal and really dig in there and hit your feelings. It’s an incredible feeling for someone to feel that you’re worth that acknowledgment. I’m grateful the sport feels that way and it makes you inspired to continue to be an asset and represent the sport well and help it grow. It makes you want to earn that recognition.”

Ok, so who would Junior vote for next season if he were to cast a ballot? Junior played it close to the vest, mentioning just now-former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott as one possible candidate. It was Chase’s father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, who won the Most Popular Driver a record 16 times before Junior would win it 15 times.

“I don’t know, I think you might be surprised,” Earnhardt said of who wins it next season. “I think it’s going to be a very close battle. When I think about that, the drivers that have the opportunity to win it, also have the opportunity over the next 12 months before they get here to double, triple and quadruple their fan bases with the engagement they can create and capitalize on throughout the season.

“Chase (Elliott) obviously has a great personality and a great family history, much like I did. So that’s something he has going for him.

“But he has a lot of guys that are doing a lot of great things on social media and engaging and interacting with the fans in a lot of different ways that are going to make this a very interesting vote next year.

“I hope that it’s as appreciated by them and it’ll be fun to hear that driver, whoever he may be, try to articulate his feelings about winning that award. But it’s more than just a popularity of one guy. We tout our sport as being the most accessible sport, and that’s what this trophy and award represents, is that accessibility and engaging with the fans. Whoever does that best over the next 12 months is the guy who’s going to win because right now it’s neck-and-neck.

“With me retiring, there’s a great opportunity for a lot of these guys, the younger guys particularly, who are more social media savvy. There’s a great opportunity for them to engage fans, introduce themselves to fans, but it really comes down to their relatability and the fan’s ability to feel like they’re the next door neighbor or the guy they’re going to meet at the bar or run into at the grocery store. Whoever that guy is for them, that’s who they’ll pull for.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Last Ride’ diecast is Lionel Racing’s bestselling ever

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has set a new benchmark for Lionel Racing’s most purchased diecast in its 25-year history.

Lionel Racing, NASCAR’s official diecast producer, has announced that the diecast of Earnhardt’s “Last Ride” No. 88 Chevrolet in the Cup season finale last month is now its bestselling diecast in company history.

The “Last Ride” car is based on the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet that Earnhardt drove in his rookie Cup season in 2000.

The previous bestseller was another Earnhardt diecast, for his 2014 Daytona 500 win.

Lionel Racing says that QVC’s “For Race Fans Only” show that featured Earnhardt and unveiled the car helped contribute to sales. But even without QVC, sales of the “Last Ride” diecast outpaced the 2014 Daytona 500 diecast by more than 10,000 units.

“The demand for this car has been simply astounding,” Lionel Racing President Howard Hitchcock said on the company’s website. “The fan response to this diecast is a true measure of how much Earnhardt has meant to both casual NASCAR fans and serious diecast collectors.”

Lionel Racing has also revealed the top-10 selling diecasts for the year, which you can find below. Earnhardt has six cars on the list. Chase Elliott has two and Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney each have one.

Casey Mears likely to split 2018 between NASCAR, Global Rallycross and Stadium Super Trucks

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Casey Mears still plans to compete part-time in NASCAR in 2018, but he’s also looking to expand his racing horizons.

The veteran NASCAR driver told The Checkered Flag recently that he also expects to race in the Red Bull Global Rallycross series, as well as Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks series.

“Right now I’m talking to a few NASCAR programs to do maybe limited stuff,” Mears told The Checkered Flag. “I don’t have anything that would be a full-time ride in a NASCAR series.

“I’ve been speaking with Robby Gordon in the Stadium Super Truck program. I think that’s a really cool up-and-coming-series and I’d definitely like to be involved with the GRC. It looks like a lot of fun.

“I think there’s enough difference between all those that it could leave room for doing a bit of both so we’ll see how it works out.”

Mears did not race in the Cup Series in 2017, having lost his ride at the end of 2016 to Ty Dillon in the No. 13 Geico Chevy. He has amassed 488 starts and one win (2007 Coca-Cola 600) in his Cup career, along with 13 top fives and 51 top 10s.

However, he did compete on a part-time basis in 2017 in the Xfinity Series, making 14 starts, with season-best finishes of ninth place at both Richmond and Road America. He also has 107 Xfinity starts with one win, 16 top fives and 34 top 10s.

Make donation to Martinsville toy drive to take laps around track

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Have you ever dreamed of making a lap around the oldest track in NASCAR?

Today and tomorrow, Martinsville Speedway is making that dream come true.

With a toy or monetary donation for the Grace Network of Martinsville and Henry County, you can drive your own car around the half-mile track in Martinsville, Virginia.

A $10 donation gets you five laps and $20 gets you 10 laps.

The laps are being held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET today and Friday.

Cole Pearn to honor late friend with fundraiser for family next month in Toronto

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A testimonial to Cole Pearn’s best friend, who unexpectedly passed away in early August, as well as a fundraiser for his family will be held Friday, Jan. 5, at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Pearn’s lifelong friend, Jacob Damen, died unexpectedly after contracting a fast-moving bacterial infection on August 3.

Pearn, crew chief for the 2017 NASCAR Cup championship for Furniture Row Racing, will oversee the gala event, which will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. ET.

The evening will also include an appearance by 2017 NASCAR Cup champion Martin Truex Jr., silent and live auctions, the opportunity to meet both Pearn and Truex and other events.

All net proceeds from the evening will be given to the Damen Family Fund.

“We miss our buddy Jacob dearly,” Pearn said in a media release. “We all have family and friends that fill a space in our hearts that is irreplaceable.

“Jacob filled the hearts of his wife Carolyn, his sons Lucas and Nolan, his parents Jerry and Kim Damen, twin brother Tyler, sister Julia and countless friends.

“We are going to celebrate his life at the perfect spot, the Hockey Hall of Fame, to support his beautiful wife Carolyn and the two boys, Lucas and Nolan. I can’t wait to get home to celebrate with everyone.”

Click here for more details and to purchase tickets to the ‘Jacob Damen Friend and Fan Remembered’ event.