CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — There was little recognition outside the racing world when Jimmie Johnson won his first NASCAR championship.
Same with his second, and again with his third.
But four straight championships? That’s a different story.
Johnson, the first driver in NASCAR history to win four consecutive titles, earned mainstream recognition Monday when he was honored as the Male Athlete of the Year by members of The Associated Press.
Johnson received 42 votes from editors at U.S. newspapers which are members of the AP. Tennis star Roger Federer (30 votes) and Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt (29) were the only other athletes with totals in the double- digits.
Although Tiger Woods was named Athlete of the Decade, the golfer received only nine votes for Athlete of the Year. He was tied with NBA star Kobe Bryant and slugger Albert Pujols in fourth place. Woods, who was ranked No. 1 in his sport but failed to win one of golf’s majors this season, was never a top contender — even before the sex scandal that unraveled his personal life following a Nov. 27 traffic accident.
For Johnson, the first race car driver to be named the AP’s Athlete of the Year in its 78-year history, the award is the validation he’s been waiting for since he began his historic run in 2006.
“We’d been wondering the last few years, ‘When is this going to hit?’ ” he said. “It seems like the answer is now. The wave is finally peaking, and we don’t know where it’s going to take us. The fourth straight title takes it out of our sport and makes it a point of discussion — like, ‘Wow, a race car driver won this thing.’ ”
The 34-year-old Californian again schooled the competition, winning four of his seven races this season when the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship began in September. Two-time champion Tony Stewart dominated the “regular season,” but it was Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team that turned it up when the stakes were highest.
In the 10 Chase races, Johnson finished outside the top-10 only once: when he wrecked at Texas with Sam Hornish Jr. three laps into the eighth race. The crash proved Johnson’s mettle, as he sat inside his car, helmet on, for more than an hour as crew chief Chad Knaus led a total rebuild of his Chevrolet so that Johnson could return to the track.