Perhaps the memories of Dick Trickle smoking a cigarette behind the wheel or Richard Petty streaking around the track in blue jeans and a T-shirt are hard to shake but, for whatever reason, stock car drivers - even at the highest levels - often haven't benefited from the same appreciation of their athletic abilities as have, say, Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali.

That's why Jimmie Johnson's selection by The Associated Press as its Male Athlete of the Year represents a paradigm shift in the way drivers are perceived. Johnson is the first driver to be honoured in the 79-year history of the award and, before he made his successful run at a record fourth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in 2009, he ramped up his condition and fitness program.

Though not all drivers may share the dedication to training of Johnson or Mark Martin, it's obvious that conditioning can give a driver an edge in a sport that requires a unique combination of strength, endurance, hand-eye coordination and fine and large motor skills.

In winning the honour, Johnson beat off tennis superstar Roger Federer, who won his record-breaking 15th career Grand Slam title last summer at Wimbledon and later regained his #1 world ranking, and Usain Bolt, the track and field stand-out who became the first man in history to hold the 100- and 200- metre world and Olympic titles at the same time.

Johnson's selection also validated a view long held by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr - and spelled out in a recent letter to Johnson from his son Jim France, NASCAR's vice chairman and executive vice president - that was released to the media on Monday [read here].

"Over 60 years ago, my father set out to make NASCAR part of the traditional American sports landscape," Jim France wrote to Johnson, "He believed the recognition of drivers as athletes was a key element in validating motor racing as a legitimate sport."

Now that Johnson has joined a group of honorees that includes Jordan, Ali, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Joe Montana, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz, Sandy Koufax, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ben Hogan, Joe DiMaggio, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, it would be difficult to argue otherwise.
by Reid Spencer / Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service