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

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 30: NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. poses with NASCAR most popular driver award following the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series awards at Wynn Las Vegas on November 30, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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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.”