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On Sunday night, Jimmie Johnson clinched his fourth straight Sprint Cup championship, and in so doing cemented his place among the greats of the sport. But he’s done more than that; he’s now propelled himself above and beyond NASCAR. He’s the most successful athlete currently competing right now, and it’s not even close.

Were this Tiger Woods snagging his fourth straight Masters, or Kobe Bryant clinching his fourth straight ring, or Tom Brady capturing his fourth straight Super Bowl, you’d be getting their greatness rammed down your throat 24/7. But this is NASCAR; the sports fan public knows they can’t throw a pass 50 yards or hit a golf ball 300, but they figure they know how to drive fast and turn left. How hard could it be for Johnson to win some of those little races, huh?

Answer: plenty. Put aside the physical demands — the intense heat of the car’s interior, the physical strength needed to wheel a car for 500 miles. Even running a race — to say nothing of winning one, or winning an entire season — requires the mental discipline, ultrafast-twitch reflexes and utter, stone-cold fearlessness that only the best athletes possess. (And don’t even start the whole “the car’s the star, not the driver” nonsense. Equipment is a key element of every sport. When’s the last time you saw a baseball player succeed without a bat, or a football player succeed without pads?)

So, with the playing field leveled, let’s break down why Johnson is the top athlete at work today. For starters, you could argue that the level of competition in every single sport right now is the highest it’s ever been. Kids train practically from birth to play one sport; sophisticated training techniques make today’s marginal athletes the equivalent of yesterday’s All-Stars.

Even so, Johnson has established a four-year gap between himself and his nearest competitors that’s greater than any other athlete in any other sport. Nobody in any league is a prohibitive favorite; even Tiger is vulnerable these days.

Plenty of people both inside and outside NASCAR are dismissing Johnson’s accomplishments, and that’s too bad. They’re missing out on history here. Nobody else is riding as high these days, in any sport, anywhere. And anybody who thinks it’s certain to end in 2010 … well, didn’t we think that coming into 2007, 2008 and 2009?

Bandwagoners, here’s a heads-up: push aside your Yankees caps, Patriots jerseys and Cowboys jackets and make room for some of Jimmie Johnson’s gear. (He’s the 48.) If you’re the type of person who wants to jump on board a proven winning train, you’ve got one right here waiting for you, ready to roll.

For everyone else, take a moment — just a moment, that’s all — to applaud what Johnson’s doing here. You’re not going to see anything like this again anytime soon.

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