Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins Most Popular Driver Award for record 15th consecutive year

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his record-extending 15th consecutive – and final – NMPA Most Popular Driver Award on Thursday night.

Earnhardt was presented the award by Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards show at Wynn Las Vegas.

“Thanks for all you’ve done for the sport,” Jarrett told Earnhardt.

“I’ve got to thank the fans,” Earnhardt said. “Without them none of the opportunities I had in racing would have happened. It always comes back to the fans.”

WATCH: NBCSN airs Cup Series Awards Show at 9 p.m. ET. (Watch Cup Awards Show online here)

Earnhardt, who announced in April this would be his final full-time season Cup season, will miss breaking Bill Elliott’s record of 16 career Most Popular Driver Awards.

Even so, Earnhardt dedicated his final Cup season to the fans with an appreciation tour.

Completing the top 10 in this year’s voting were (listed alphabetically): Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Danica Patrick and Martin Truex Jr.

In his speech, Busch joked to Earnhardt: “To Dale, thanks for the friendship that we’ve grown over the years, and of course for you converting Junior Nation into Rowdy fans. It’s all going to be very different getting all those cheers next year at driver intros.”

Also, NASCAR Chairman Brian France presented Earnhardt with the Bill France Award of Excellence, an award that is not always given.

“It’s a real honor, I always tell people all the time that all I wanted to do in racing was to pay my bills and race for a long time,” Earnhardt said of receiving the Bill France Award.

NMPA Most Popular Driver Award winners

Year    Winner

2017    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2016    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2015    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2014    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2013    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2012    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2011    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2010    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2009    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2008    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2007    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2006    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2005    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2004    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2003    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2002    Bill Elliott

2001    Dale Earnhardt

2000    Bill Elliott

1999    Bill Elliott

1998    Bill Elliott

1997    Bill Elliott

1996    Bill Elliott

1995    Bill Elliott

1994    Bill Elliott

1993    Bill Elliott

1992    Bill Elliott

1991    Bill Elliott

1990    Darrell Waltrip

1989    Darrell Waltrip

1988    Bill Elliott

1987    Bill Elliott

1986    Bill Elliott

1985    Bill Elliott

1984    Bill Elliott

1983    Bobby Allison

1982    Bobby Allison

1981    Bobby Allison

1980    David Pearson

1979    David Pearson

1978    Richard Petty

1977    Richard Petty

1976    Richard Petty

1975    Richard Petty

1974    Richard Petty

1973    Bobby Allison

1972    Bobby Allison

1971    Bobby Allison

1970    Richard Petty

1969    Bobby Isaac

1967    Cale Yarborough

1966    Darel Dieringer

1965    Fred Lorenzen

1964    Richard Petty

1963    Fred Lorenzen

1962    Richard Petty

1961    Joe Weatherly

1960    Rex White

1959    Jack Smith

1958    Glen Wood

1957    Fireball Roberts

1956    Curtis Turner

1955    Tim Flock

1954    Lee Petty

1953    Lee Petty

Daniel Hemric fastest in final practice; Kevin Harvick second

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Daniel Hemric turned the fastest lap Friday in the final Cup practice at Kansas Speedway, turning a 177.830 mph lap in his No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

Kevin Harvick was second followed by Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski (who paced the first practice) and Ryan Blaney.

Hemric has yet to announce a ride for 2020 after RCR announced last month that the rookie would be replaced by Tyler Reddick next season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez and Aric Almirola rounded out the top 10.

Here are the rankings speeds of the other playoff drivers: Denny Hamlin 12th; Alex Bowman 15th; Joey Logano 16th; Clint Bowyer 19th; Chase Elliott 20th; and William Byron 22nd.

Click here to see where things stand in the playoffs standings entering Sunday’s second-round cutoff race at Kansas.

Click here for speeds from the final practice at Kansas.

Click here for the speeds during the first Cup practice of the weekend at Kansas.

Ryan Preece praises team for its work after hauler fire

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Ryan Preece praised his team for converting teammate Chris Buescher’s backup car into Preece’s primary car Friday after the hauler carrying Preece’s cars and equipment caught fire this week en route to Kansas Speedway.

“I know some of the guys haven’t had much sleep, very proud of them,” Preece said.

The team’s hauler pulled over near New Columbia, Illinois, on Thursday after a fire in the rear axle area that spread to the hauler. A team spokesperson told NBC Sports that crew chief Eddie Pardue and a couple of team members flew there to take what could be salvaged before driving to Kansas City.

The team spokesperson said that the lockers and uniforms in the hauler were heavily damaged. Both cars had damage with the backup car suffering smoke damage.

NASCAR allowed JTG Daugherty Racing to enter the garage at 8 a.m. ET Friday — five hours before the garage was scheduled to open — and allowed members from both JTG Daugherty teams to work on the car. Preece said he was there with the team when it arrived and worked on the interior as the crew converted the car.

“We’re in it as a team,” Preece said. “I wasn’t going to show up later in the afternoon. I wanted them to know that I was right there with them. I wanted to help in every way I could.”

Preece said his car was loose in the first practice session Friday at Kansas Speedway. He was 32nd on the speed chart in that session, making it on track about 10 minutes after practice began.

Brad Keselowski fastest in first practice at Kansas; Kyle Busch makes big save

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Brad Keselowski turned the fastest lap with a minute remaining in Friday afternoon’s first Cup practice at Kansas Speedway.

The 176.499-mph lap by the No. 2 Ford of Team Penske nipped a 176.389 mph lap by the No. 10 Ford of Aric Almirola.

Daniel Suarez was third, followed by Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney. Kurt Busch, Paul Menard, Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick and Daniel Hemric rounded out the top 10.

Here’s how other playoff drivers fared during the practice:

Kyle Larson 11th; Joey Logano 13th; Clint Bowyer 15th; William Byron 20th; Alex Bowman 21st; Kyle Busch (who had an impressive save; video below) 22nd; Chase Elliott 23rd.

Click here to see where things stand in the playoffs standings entering Sunday’s second-round cutoff race at Kansas.

Click here for the speeds during the first Cup practice of the weekend at Kansas.

Gray Gaulding out Friday after suspected allergic reaction

Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A Stewart-Haas Racing plane made an unscheduled stop in St. Louis on Friday after Gray Gaulding had a suspected allergic reaction.

SS Green Light Racing confirmed Gaulding had an issue en route to Kansas City. A Stewart-Haas Racing spokesperson confirmed that its plane made the unscheduled stop, and that emergency personnel came on board after the plane landed. Gaulding remained in St. Louis while the plane continued to Kansas City.

SS Green Light Racing stated that after arriving at the track, Gaulding went to the infield care center and was not cleared to drive Friday. Gaulding will be re-evaluated Saturday. J.J. Yeley drove the car for Gaulding in practice Friday.