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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Johnson’s AP honor shows NASCAR has been accepted by mainstream

I am stunned.

As I looked up at the words on the TV screen Monday morning, I thought it was a typo: “Jimmie Johnson named AP male athlete of the year.”

Knowing sports editors like I do, I never thought that in my lifetime I would ever see a racecar driver win this award. It just wasn’t possible.

I don’t doubt that Johnson is the most dominant athlete in any sport right now and does deserve the honor … but in my experience most sports editors don’t view NASCAR as a sport on an even level with baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis or track and field. They tend to the view it as more of a competition, and less of a “sport”.

Their views are often in line with much of the public, whose Web comments after the announcement included:
“Jimmie Johnson is athlete of the year? All he did was sit there.”
“Jimmie Johnson is athlete of the year?! He's not an athlete. He's a driver. He sits there and steers.”
“In honor of Jimmie Johnson winning athlete of the year, I’m nominating my mailman for 2010 since he drives a motor vehicle for a living too”

As NASCAR fans, we know it’s not quite that easy. But the fact remains that this is how a lot of people think about motorsports. To them, it’s all motor and no sport. (I’d love to see these people try to do a lap at Talladega in a Cup car … they’d probably either wet themselves or hit the wall very quickly and painfully).

So that’s why I am stunned, and amazed, at Monday’s turn of events. Topping tennis’s Roger Federer, golf’s Tiger Woods, baseball’s Albert Pujols, track’s Usain Bolt, and basketball’s Kobe Bryant, Johnson won in commanding fashion, impressing the voters with his unprecedented fourth straight Cup title.

So getting back to the debate … is Jimmie Johnson the “athlete” of the year? It depends how you look at the word. Of course, in the purest sense of the word, it’s common sense that someone like Usain Bolt is faster and stronger than Jimmie Johnson, but that’s not the only credential for this award. It’s not about who has the biggest muscles … it’s about who’s the best at their sport. Bolt and the others had great years, but Johnson is on a historic four-year run that none of his competitors can match.

I can see the other side’s argument … it’s the car that wins the race, they’ll argue, and in a way they are right. A driver can’t dominate without a solid team effort and a strong vehicle. But the opposite side of the coin is also true, and the fastest car will never win with a bad driver. In fact, it won’t even finish the race.

Getting back to the “athlete” argument, the physical toll a long race takes on a driver requires them to be athletes. Just look at Mark Martin, who is over 50 and still works out harder than probably most of the stick-and-ball athletes. Jimmie accurately called out all the chubby, out-of-shape baseball and football players who are far less of “athletes” than he is.

With the exception of Tony Stewart, I can’t name any overly chubby drivers who are winning races. The days of drivers who look like Jimmy Spencer are long gone. Teams are employing personal trainers in an effort to keep their drives in tip-top shape so they’ll be able to race more effectively. Despite what the haters say, it’s a lot more than turning a wheel left.

I don’t root for Jimmie Johnson, and am in the crowd that thinks his dominance is generally bad for the sport, but this AP honor is the kind of thing I can cheer on regardless of how I think of Jimmie during the racing season. He is an ambassador of the sport, and this honor shows he has earned the respect of the sports media, which means NASCAR has earned the respect of the sports media.

Considering that not too many years ago ago, much of the sports media thought NASCAR was just a hive of dumb rednecks racing cars down South, a NASCAR driver taking this honor is quite an accomplishment.

And despite what some people may say, Jimmie deserves it.


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