Dale Earnhardt Jr. may be lagging in the NASCAR Nextel Cup season standings, but his popularity does not appear to have waned much.

With more than 2.5 million votes cast by race fans nationwide since the voting began Feb. 1 for the Chex NMPA NASCAR Most Popular Driver Award, Earnhardt continues to lead and is the favorite to win the award for the third straight year. It also seems likely that the record of 3.8 million total votes cast last season will fall.

Although individual vote totals are not released during the balloting, Earnhardt is ahead of runner-up Jeff Gordon, another driver struggling on the track this season. They are followed by Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick, Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart, Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin and series points leader Jimmie Johnson.

In the last off week of the Cup season, Earnhardt is 14th in the season standings, 537 points behind Johnson and 110 behind 10th-place Jarrett, while four-time series champion Gordon is 541 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson and 114 behind Jarrett.

Only six races remain to qualify for the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship, which will include the top 10 drivers and any others within 400 points of the leader at that point.

Fans can vote at www.mostpopulardriver.com

for their favorite. The voting will continue through Nov. 1 and fans may vote once each day.

FIRST TIMER: Brandon Whitt was amazed by the outpouring of congratulations after he earned his first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series victory last Saturday night at Memphis Motorsports Park.

Among the calls he got after passing veteran Ron Hornaday Jr. for the win on the last lap was one from former Truck Series star Greg Biffle, now racing in NASCAR’s Nextel Cup series.

“It’s awesome that people within racing recognize what we accomplished the other night,” the 22-year-old Whitt said. “When someone calls you from the Nextel Cup garage, and Busch, or even your fellow truck competitors, it’s a neat feeling. A lot of these guys, especially the guys in the Cup Series and some of the older guys in the Truck Series that have told me heck of a job’ or something like that, these are guys that I have grown up watching race.

“I’m running against them now and have always thought that was pretty neat. To go out there and beat them and be in Victory Lane against those guys is something amazing to me.”

It took Whitt 46 races to find his way to Victory Lane in the truck series, but that didn’t take any of the luster off the win.

“We aren’t a very big organization, so it’s neat that a single truck operation can succeed like this in NASCAR,” Whitt said. “But we’ve been able to largely in part because of the backing of Toyota and TRD, which has helped us come a long way with their engineering and entire development with our team.”

Whitt has some time to think about his victory and enjoy it, with the next truck race not scheduled until Aug. 4 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

“Having a weekend off right now, I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing,” he said. “It’s great to have a weekend off and enjoy this for a little while longer. But, to be honest, I’m ready to get back out there and keep the momentum going.

“I don’t want to stop right now and have the extra week to think about it. We’re on a high note, and I just want to keep this going.”

RATED HIGH: Turner Network Television’s NASCAR ratings have zoomed to the top with the Pennsylvania 500 Nextel Cup race last Sunday added to the New England 300 event on July 17.

The race at Pocono International Raceway earned a 5.7 rating (5,137,000 households), which is a 21 percent increase over the previous year. TNT officials said that makes it the highest-rated and most-watched Cup event in the cable network’s 21-year history of airing NASCAR races on TNT and TBS.

It also stakes claim to the title as the second highest-rated Cup event ever on cable television, trailing only the 6.2 rating on TNN for a 1999 race at the North Carolina Motor Speedway.

The New England 300 delivered a 4.5 rating (4,954,000 households), a 5 percent increase over the 2004 race. That rating makes it the second most-watched race ever on TNT.

TNT, along with partner NBC, televises the second-half of the NASCAR season. The next racecast on TNT is Saturday’s Busch Series race from Gateway International Speedway in Madison, Ill., at 8 p.m. EDT.

AP-ES-07-28-05 0047EDT

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