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Jimmie Johnson Tops Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Popularity Contest

June 26, 2010

Jimmie Johnson has another win this year, this time in a popularity contest.

Johnson beat his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., to win a $100,000 grant as part of the Pepsi Refresh Project. Johnson's award will go toward providing financial relief to pediatric bone marrow transplant patients. Gordon and Earnhardt each received $25,000 for their causes.

More than 500,000 votes were cast by racing fans -- making it a bit startling that Earnhardt didn't win. Earnhardt has long reigned as NASCAR's most popular driver. He can't even beat Johnson off the track.

Johnson laughed when it was noted he beat out Earnhardt for the prize.

"Yeah, that's the impressive underlying note in all this," he said. "I'm shocked, excited and thrilled and can't thank my fans enough. I have been preaching that I have a strong fan base for a long time and I'm glad to see the evidence."

Driving standby

Jimmie Johnson had some help at Saturday's practice. Aric Almirola took some spins in the No. 48 Chevrolet at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and is Johnson's standby driver for the next few races. Johnson's wife, Chandra, is due with their first child in less than a month.

"Gonna hang out with the 48 team on baby watch for Jimmie," Almirola posted on Twitter.

Almirola has 30 career Cup starts, including four this year. He has only one career top-10 finish.

Injury update

Regan Smith will drive Sunday's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a splint.

Smith fractured his left wrist last week at Infineon Raceway. Smith, who drives the No. 78 Chevrolet, was hurt during a multicar accident on lap 67 of 110.

Streak continues

Former NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte could no longer stand competing as a start-and-park driver. Labonte terminated his contract with TRG Motorsports this week and was looking for a better chance to finish races.

Labonte knew he was taking a chance that his 595 consecutive starts streak would end. He was prepared to stay home, rather than drive in a car that would not finish a race.

He quickly landed some part-time rides. He'll drive Robby Gordon's No. 7 Toyota this weekend in New Hampshire, and Phoenix Racing said Labonte will drive the James Finch-owned car at Daytona and Chicago next month.

"I don't want to sit out a few weeks, whether it's consecutive starts or not," he said. "It's not really one of those things where I'm only doing it because of that. I'm not doing it because of that. I'm doing this because of the passion I have for it. The streak is fine, but it is what that is."

Labonte was the 2000 Cup Series champion. His last victory was in 2003 with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Labonte's start for Finch at Daytona will be the 600th of his career.

Playing coy

Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith was more entertaining than revealing when pressed about his plans for the 2011 Cup schedule.

Smith said he has not met with NASCAR about moving a race to Kentucky Speedway. Smith has said he's prepared to move a race from one of his other facilities to Kentucky now that a lingering antitrust lawsuit against NASCAR has been dropped.

Smith cracked up reporters as he danced around questions about which race will move and when Kentucky will finally land a Cup race.

"We've had no meetings about the schedule for next year," Smith said. "We're in this thing together."

Smith refused to commit to keep two races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. While the second race traditionally kicks off the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, the June race could easily be bumped off the schedule.

SMI also owns Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and Infineon Raceway.

"Whatever we do, we'll announce in the future," Smith said.

Junior vs.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a super-sized opponent this week: Shaq

Shaquille O'Neal took a tour of the JR Motorsports garage with Earnhardt, then strapped on a helmet as part of the TV show, Shaq Vs.

"Shaq was a great. He was a real professional, a real nice guy," Earnhardt said. "It was great to meet somebody like that. He really was a trouper. It was really, really hot during our little war, there."

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