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Honor well-earned

J.J. deserves AP nod

So the Associated Press has -- gasp -- named a race-car driver as its Male Athlete of the Year.

I have to say there's only one reason for that.

He deserves it.

And so you'll hear nothing but a big "Well, duh" from the Blob at the news that Jimmie Johnson takes home the honor for becoming the first man in history to win four straight NASCAR titles. And did it in an era when it's much, much harder to win even one in a row than it was when Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and various other luminaries were doing it.

And if you're planning, as a lot of people have been, to tell me race drivers aren't athletes, you may exit now. You fail one of the basic requirements to gain entry into the Blob, which is that you have half a brain.

Look: I've been covering auto racing for most of my adult life, and anyone who says guys like Johnson aren't athletes is not anyone I will suffer gladly. I have never heard anyone who knows anything about the sport say such a thing, because we know better.

What, after all, are the characteristics of a top-shelf athlete? Stamina? Physical strength and endurance? Superior hand-eye coordination? The ability to make split-second decisions and execute them successfully?

If that's the case, J.J. and his compadres more deserve to be called athletes than a lot of "real athletes" are. And so I absolutely agree with him when he says he could beat a fair number of NFL players in a five-mile run. I have, after all, seen Peyton Manning run.

One more thing: Once upon a time, when I was in my 20s and in reasonably good shape, I had the chance to drive in a 10-lap late-model race at the quarter mile oval in Anderson. Understand, this was when I was still in my basketball-playing, running days. And those 10 laps wore me out like two hours running it on the playground never did.

I climbed out of the car wringing wet with sweat and with every muscle aching. And that was after 10 minutes. I have no idea how Johnson and his fellow NASCAR drivers do it at 180 mph, surrounded by 43 other cars, for two, three, four hours at a time.

So, yeah, Johnson's an athlete. An historic one. End of discussion.

Ben Smith's blog.

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