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

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.

Starting lineup for Texas Cup race: Brad Keselowski wins pole

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Brad Keselowski will be at the front of the field to start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 pm ET, USA Network).

Keselowski, who is not a part of the 12-driver playoff group, won the pole Saturday afternoon with a speed of 188.990, edging Joey Logano‘s 188.805.

MORE: Texas Cup starting lineup

The race is the first of three in the second round of the Cup playoffs. Round of 12 races will follow at Talladega Superspeedway Oct. 2 and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval Oct. 9.

MORE: Waffle House a headquarters for race winners

Also starting in the top five Sunday will be William Byron, Tyler Reddick and Michael McDowell. It is McDowell’s best oval start of the season and his ninth top-10 start of the year.

Brad Keselowski wins Cup pole at Texas Motor Speedway

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Brad Keselowski, hoping to extend Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing’s turnaround, won the pole Saturday for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

It was the second piece of good news for RFK Racing in two weeks. Chris Buescher,  Keselowski’s teammate, won last week’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the first victory for the team under the RFK banner.

Keselowski, who ran 188.990 mph, is not a part of the 12-driver playoff group. Nine of the first 14 starting positions were filled by playoff drivers.

MORE: Texas Cup qualifying results

Following in the top five Saturday were Joey Logano, William Byron, Tyler Reddick and Michael McDowell. Playoff point leader Chase Elliott will start sixth.

“Texas is a really tough track,” Keselowski told NBC Sports. “As hot as it’s going to be, that will be even tougher.”

Race-time temperatures are expected to be in the mid-90s Sunday.

The race (3:30 p.m. ET), the first event in the second round of the playoffs, will be televised by the USA Network.