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Johnson's No. 1 and that's no surprise to Hendrick

     

Stewart would like NASCAR to better define 'Boys, have at it' approach to racing

By Dave Rodman, NASCAR.COM
May 12, 2011 11:10 AM, EDT


It should be no shock to most sports fans to learn that, according to a poll commissioned by Forbes magazine, three NASCAR drivers were among the most influential of American sports figures -- including two of the top three positions.

While the 2011 Sprint Cup Series season has seen NASCAR beguiled by shortcomings in live attendance and TV viewership, its athletes -- compared to many of the current marquee stick-and-ball players -- are paragons of stability and cleanliness of character and actions.

Dale Jr. Johnson, Gordon and Martin (Autostock)
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I've been very fortunate to have guys like Gordon and Jimmie, who are absolutely no-maintenance -- anything you ask them to do, they'll do it. And Dale and Mark are the same way. I haven't been asked to the hauler in a long time.

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-- RICK HENDRICK

And while five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has left many NASCAR fans less than enamored with his personality, he earned the top rating of all American athletes in Forbes' poll, which was released this week and executed by E-Poll Market Research of Encino, Calif. Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, were third and eighth, respectively, in the rankings.

Johnson rated No. 1 in the poll of 1,000 adults -- with the proviso that the athlete had to be known to at least 20 percent of the respondents, which according to Forbes eliminated the highly-influential boxer Manny Pacquiao, "who scores the highest influence numbers of anyone but who's familiar to only 12 percent of the population."

Johnson's status in the poll that measured influence, likeability and awareness levels -- including endorsements and media exposure -- was no shock to team owner, Rick Hendrick, who ultimately stood up for his entire organization.

"I think people have had to learn to respect him that maybe didn't like him at first," Hendrick said. "I think he was in Jeff's [Gordon] shadow a lot early on -- and now when they see him on HBO or somewhere else on TV, the word gets out. You never hear anybody say anything bad about Jimmie. You might not like him because he's beating you, but you never hear anybody say anything bad about him.

"He races you hard, but never dirty. I think the fans, as they've gotten to know more of him, have learned to respect him even if they don't necessarily claim him as their favorite driver."

Hendrick's assessment of Johnson, specifically, and his four drivers overall, including the veteran Mark Martin, gives some insight into why NASCAR athletes in general are considered positive role models.

"I think the cool thing about [Johnson] is that he doesn't ask for publicity," Hendrick said. "He doesn't need to try to make people think he's the best out there. His deal is that he wants to just get in the car and be the best. He doesn't want to talk about it; he just wants to do it. And he puts a lot of effort into that.

"And what's so different about Jimmie is that he's not always looking to have everything else better, he just wants to make himself better. And he thinks if he's better, he'll elevate the rest of it. So he's a pretty phenomenal guy.

"I'm very, very fortunate to have Jimmie Johnson, I can tell you that. I've been very fortunate to have guys like Gordon and Jimmie, who are absolutely no-maintenance -- anything you ask them to do, they'll do it. And Dale and Mark are the same way. I haven't been asked to the [NASCAR] hauler [to discuss questionable behavior] in a long time.

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