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Johnson award backs founder's belief

The image of a racecar driver hasn't always lent itself to inclusion among the world's elite athletes. Jimmie Johnson is helping to change that....

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



Related Pictures

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Ten-time World Series champion Yogi Berra welcomes four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson to the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Little Falls, New Jersey   [pic credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images/NASCAR]
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Pro Services Chevrolet, and Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 5-hour Energy Toyota, lead a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 22, 2015 in Bristol, Tennessee.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, finishes in second place Saturday night, August 22, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Pro Services Chevrolet SS, finishes in fourth place Saturday night, August 22, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, finishes in second place Saturday night, August 22, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Pro Services Chevrolet SS, qualifies for tenth position Friday, August 21, 2015 for Saturday night`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee. Johnson is sixth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, qualifies for seventh position Friday, August 21, 2015 for Saturday night`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee. Harvick leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John’s/Budweiser Chevrolet SS, finishes in second place with Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS who finished in 20th place Sunday, August 16, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s/Budweiser Chevrolet, drives during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 15, 2015 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo Credit: Josh Hedges/Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS, qualifies for eighth position Friday, August 14, 2015 for Sunday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. Johnson is fourth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John’s/Budweiser Chevrolet SS, qualifies for seventh position Friday, August 14, 2015 for Sunday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. Harvick leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS, finishes in tenth place Sunday, August 9, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, finishes in third place Sunday, August 9, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, New York. Harvick was leading into the last turn of the road track when he ran out of gas. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at the Glen at Watkins Glen International on August 9, 2015 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo Credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on August 7, 2015 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s/Budweiser Chevrolet, lead the field at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Windows 10 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 2, 2015 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Smoke pours from the Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s/Budweiser Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Windows 10 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 2, 2015 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo Credit: Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS, stops in his pit on his way to a sixth place finish Sunday, August 2, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)

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Matt - Unregistered

December 30, 2009 7:52 PM

Is Juan Pablo Montoyas car equal to the winners cars? Is his team equal to their teams? Maybe they don't know how to set up his car for him. I don't watch NASCAR so I am not sure. If his car/team is not equal, then that would be a contributing factor in him struggling. There's a lot of variables involved. By the same token, how would the top NASCAR guys fair in F1? Personally I think all motorsports require their own unique approaches and each have their own nuances that need to be learned.

Don - Unregistered

December 30, 2009 6:58 PM

Well, they do race on two road courses - Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen. I'd like to see more also. It takes more athletic skill and conditioning to race on road courses than ovals, but driving ovals on the ragged edge requires real driving talent. Just ask Juan Pablo Montoya and numerous other world class drivers finding out that driving one of those beasts is pretty difficult. And the drivers in NASCAR are pretty good. I bet Michael Schumacher would have a hard time driving one and competing against 42 other cars.



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