Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series champion every year since 2006, isn't particularly charismatic. But he's great at what he does. He's also appealing to many fans because he seems to be just like them – the guy next door who just happens to double as the best driver on the NASCAR circuit. That's among the reasons why Johnson rates as America's most influential athlete this year.
After a prolonged slump, "NASCAR has had a bit of resurgence, people are becoming more aware of the drivers this year," says Gerry Philpott, CEO of Encino, Calf.-based E-Poll Market Research, which co-conducted the poll of influential athletes our list is based on. While the sport is still lagging behind the glory days of the early 2000s, television ratings are up 6 percent this year, according to NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps, who credits competitive early races this season with drawing interest. "It helps drive storylines," says Phelps. The first nine races of the 2011 season have produced seven different winners. Jeff Gordon, a longtime fan favorite, got a nice boost from making it into the winner's circle in Phoenix in February, his first victory in two years.More
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