He knew what was coming. And he was going to enjoy it.
About midway through the ceremony, Earnhardt was named the National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver for the 15th consecutive year by receiving the most votes from fans who voted online over the final 10 weeks of the season.
The consecutive streak extended a record already owned by Earnhardt, who will retire with one fewer overall most popular driver awards than 16-time winner Bill Elliott.
While the award was no surprise, the difference in what a year makes wasn’t lost on Earnhardt, who was days away from testing a year ago to see if he could come back from the vision and balance issues caused by a concussion that threatened his career. Earnhardt had missed the second half of 2016, did come back for 2017 and then announced in April that he would retire from full-time Cup racing after the season-finale Nov. 19 at Homestead.
“I’m so glad to be in this place I’m in right now,” Earnhardt said after the ceremony. “Those were some difficult times and some concerning times. I didn’t know how the test was going to go and how I would feel in the car. A lot of questions.
“I had been out of the car for a while so it was a very difficult time. This has not been. Obviously, this is a little sad, but there is a lot of joy.”
Earnhardt’s role in the awards ceremony wasn’t just in receiving the popularity award as well as the Bill France Award of Excellence given by NASCAR. He also played a role near the end, too, as he introduced the 2017 NASCAR Cup champion Martin Truex Jr., who slept on Earnhardt’s couch when he first competed in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Truex, who won the 2004-05 titles in that series driving for a team co-owned by Earnhardt, has had an emotional journey over the past few years. Truex won the 2017 title, his first and the first for Furniture Row Racing, while his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex has battled a recurrence of ovarian cancer.
“When the love of his life battles the most evil of diseases and he stands with her to make her fight, his fight, he’s a champion partner,” Earnhardt said during the ceremony.
“When he’s away from the track perhaps enjoying his true passion for hunting or fishing, you realize this: He’s a champion friend. He’s the man.”
At that point, Truex said he got emotional.
“I was lucky I had a few minutes after Dale introduced me to calm down and catch my breath because I was kind of a bit of a mess at that point in time,” Truex said.
Truex’s speech was emotional, too.
“This is a childhood dream to me,” Truex said during his speech. “The team has carried the same motto throughout the season, and that was ‘Never give up.’
“No one has lived that out more than my life partner, Sherry. … She is the true champion.”
A two-time Daytona 500 winner, Earnhardt will be part of the NBC broadcast team next year. NBC has the rights to the final 20 NASCAR Cup races of the season.
“It’s been a great year to reflect, and I was thankful to be able to compete all season and compete one more season and close the book the way I wanted to close it and do it ourselves,” Earnhardt said.