NASCAR drivers set pace as athletes, role models

I would love to tell you I greeted the news that Jimmie Johnson was ranked No. 1 on Forbes magazine’s annual list of most influential athletes – Dale Earnhardt Jr. was ranked seventh on the same list — with nothing more dramatic than a smile and a quiet feeling of pride.

But I can’t tell you that, because I would be lying. I celebrated … loudly.

Forbes’ 10 most influential athletes of 2012, in order from top to bottom, are Jimmie Johnson; Tim Tebow; Peyton Manning; Manny Pacquiao; Tom Brady; Aaron Rodgers; Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Drew Brees; Eli Manning; and Jeremy Lin.

I freely admit to having a chip on my shoulder where NASCAR is concerned. Generally speaking, when broadcasters or even just regular people talk about the competitive athletic world’s “big four,” they’re referring to football, basketball, baseball, and hockey.

This makes me question a couple of things. First of all: Hockey? Really, people?

And second: Why is NASCAR never in the mix?

Forbes magazine focuses on the movers and shakers of the business world. The staff does its research, and you can trust what you read. Long story short, in the business community, Forbes is a publication to be taken seriously.

Forbes has bridged the gap between “serious” and “entertaining” by becoming well-known for its lists, things like America’s richest celebrities, best small companies and most miserable cities, plus my personal favorite, the richest fictional characters. For the record, Tony “Ironman” Stark has a higher net worth than Bruce “Batman” Wayne, but they are both trumped by Jed “Poor Mountaineer, Barely Kept His Family Fed” Clampett.

The list of most influential athletes is based strictly on public opinion. In this case, 1,100 participants were asked to rate athletes, based on a list of 40 attributes. More people selected “influential” to describe Jimmie Johnson than any other athlete.

What does being influential really mean? We all remember those times we told our mama we had done something dumb because all our friends were doing it, and she said, “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?”

The answer, sadly, was probably yes. We were teenagers, after all.

The point is that the people and things we see and hear affect our decisions. This applies not only when choosing which fast food burger to have or what home improvement store to shop in, but when choosing how to act in certain situations, or how to present ourselves to the public. People could be making hard assessments of their spiritual health thanks to Tebow. Kids could be getting more serious about their education since Lin and his Harvard degree has garnered so much attention. To influence others is to lead by example.

Aspiring young athletes might notice that yes, Jimmie Johnson has it all – a beautiful wife and daughter, five NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships, a job with one of the sport’s top teams, and all of the luxuries that come along with those things.

But they might also notice that Johnson isn’t arrogant or a jerk; Forbes, in fact, listed a “guy-next-door persona that fans can relate to” as one of his primary selling points.

He is physically fit, and a hard worker. He is an articulate and affable ambassador for NASCAR; I would stake my small kingdom to bet that kids will stop eating ice cream before Jimmie Johnson gets arrested for carrying a gun into a nightclub, or is discredited for failing a drug test.

He isn’t stingy with the fruits of his talent and good fortune. The Jimmie Johnson Foundation is dedicated to assisting children, families and communities in need, and lists Lowe’s Toolbox for Education, the Hendrick Marrow Program, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte, NC as its partner programs.

If you’re looking for someone’s influence to follow, you could do a lot worse than Johnson. He continues to show us that you can be super successful, super rich and super lucky, and still be a super nice guy.

“It is just a huge honor,” he said when Forbes’ list was announced on April 24. “And not only it is very good for me and my career and what I do in the race car and my brand, I think it’s very good for NASCAR, as well.”

That chip on my shoulder is a blue chip known as NASCAR. Not only is the sport part of the big four, it is actually one of the top two. Based strictly on official numbers, NASCAR is the country’s No. 1 spectator sport, with more of the top 20 highest-attended sporting events in the U.S. than any other sport, and the No. 2 rated regular-season sport on television, behind only the NFL. It’s out there, and it is wildly popular.

But then again, so was Rodney Dangerfield, and he didn’t get no respect, either.

I feel compelled to point out that not one of Forbes’ top 10 most influential athletes is a hockey player, although I hope that won’t encourage or influence you to become snarky. Jimmie Johnson is a much nicer act to follow … literally.

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