Johnson AP Award Validates Bill France Sr. Belief That Drivers Are Athletes

Four-Time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Joins Distinguished List Of World-Class Athletes

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Dec. 28, 2009) -- When Jimmie Johnson was named Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press last week, he joined a distinguished list of world-class athletes that had been recognized during the previous 78 years the honor had been bestowed.

Johnson's selection also validated the belief of Bill France Sr. that NASCAR drivers are indeed "athletes," an assertion the late NASCAR founder said was crucial in further developing the sport.

In winning the honor, Johnson outdistanced tennis superstar Roger Federer, who won his record-breaking 15th career Grand Slam title last summer at Wimbledon and regained his No. 1 world ranking; and Usain Bolt, the track and field standout who became the first man in history to hold the 100- and 200- meter world and Olympic titles at the same time. That is pretty stellar company.

In a recent letter he wrote to Johnson, Jim France -- NASCAR vice chairman and executive vice president and Bill Sr.'s son -- said the recognition by the AP cemented the fact that drivers are athletes.

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

An examination of the listing of the previous winners of the AP Male Athlete of the Year award reads like a "Who's Who" in the history books of sports. Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Carl Lewis, Muhammad Ali, Mark Spitz, Sandy Koufax, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ben Hogan, Joe DiMaggio, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis are all past recipients, meaning Johnson has etched his name alongside some of sports' greatest performers.

In winning his unprecedented fourth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, Johnson turned in a world-class athletic performance in 2009. It was a performance highlighted by intense preparation, focus, endurance -- plus mental and physical toughness. And in doing so, Johnson validated Bill France Sr.'s vision for the sport.

-credit: nascar