Let's say you're a fledgling owner in the Sprint Cup Series and you're searching for a driver around whom to build your race team. What characteristics should you look for? Well, first you'll want someone who excels at finding the edge of speed in a racecar, a daredevil who's able to always find that fine line between being in control and crashing.
Next, you'll want a driver who's telegenic and articulate, because that's what it often takes to lure sponsorships to your team. You'll also want to make sure that he's a pro at communicating with his crew chief, at succinctly describing what he's feeling inside the car and suggesting to his crew what needs to be done to find more speed. Finally, and this would just be an added bonus, it would nice if he has an even-keeled temperament, because hotheads tend to sabotage their title hopes by making silly, heat-of-the-moment mistakes on the track.
In other words you would want Jimmie Johnson.
Not only is Johnson the first driver to win three consecutive championships since Cale Yarborough pulled off the feat 30 years ago, but also Johnson has done it with a style and a dignity that all mothers would love. When he struggles he doesn't lash out at his crew like many drivers do; instead he simply looks forward to the next race. And when rival drivers beat him he's usually one of the first to make the trip to Victory Lane to offer congratulations. This may sound like trivial stuff, but the virtue of sportsmanship is often lacking in NASCAR -- not because of Johnson, though.
Yet it's not just Johnson's talent and temperament that make him my pick for Sportsman of the Year. His Jimmie Johnson Foundation has donated $1.7 million to charities, and this year alone the foundation is on track to raise $1 million. I've spent time with Johnson in his hometown of El Cajon, Calif., a dusty suburb of San Diego, and he's currently building four homes there for families along with Habitat for Humanity on a street named Foundation Lane. Here, for these families, dreams are coming true thanks to Johnson and his wife, Chandra.
So the most successful stock car racer of his generation is more than just a great driver. He's the best his sport has to offer.