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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 Chevrolet SS qualified for sixth position September 19, 2014 for Sunday`s Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Johnson is in the Chase which continues with the Challenger 16 for this and next week`s race. (Photo by Christa L Thomas/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 Eckrich Ford, races Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 14, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Sarah Glenn/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #5 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, celebrates with his son, Keelan, in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Jimmy John`s Freaky Fast 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 13, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #5 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Jimmy John`s Freaky Fast 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 13, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #5 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Nationwide Series Jimmy John`s Freaky Fast 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 13, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #5 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Jimmy John`s Freaky Fast 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 13, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Brian Scott, driver of the #2 Shore Lodge Chevrolet, leads thre field past the green flag to start during the NASCAR Nationwide Series Jimmy John`s Freaky Fast 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 13, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, qualified for third position Friday, September 5, 2014 for Saturday night`s Nascar Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. Johnson is sixth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Brian France, CEO and chairman of NASCAR, speaks with the media during the NASCAR series partnership announcement at NASCAR Hall of Fame on September 3, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NASCAR and Xfinity announced a deal that will span ten years. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, pits along with the rest of the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 31, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, and Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Panasonic Chevrolet, lead a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 31, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmer`s Insurance Chevrolet SS, is congratulated by his Hendrik Motor Sports teammates Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Panasonic Toughbook Chevrolet SS (left), Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS (center) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet SS (right) after his victory Sunday, August 31, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. With this win, Kahne joins Gordon, Johnson, and Earnhardt Jr. in the Chase. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, won the Pole position Friday, August 29, 2014 for Sunday`s Nascar Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. It was Harvick`s sixth pole win of the 2014 season. He is 7th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 29, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, finished fourth and Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet SS, finished twelfth Saturday, August 23, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, qualified for sixth position Friday, August 22, 2014 for Saturday evening`s Nascar Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee. Johnson is seventh in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmie John`s Chevrolet SS, won the pole position Friday, August 22, 2014 for Saturday evening`s Nascar Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee. Harvick is sixth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Harold Hinson/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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