CHARLOTTE, N.C. - There was little recognition outside the racing world when Jimmie Johnson won his first NASCAR championship.

Same with his second, and again with his third.

But four straight championships? That's a different story.

Johnson, the first driver in NASCAR history to win four consecutive titles, earned mainstream recognition yesterday when he was honored as the Male Athlete of the Year by members of the Associated Press.

Johnson received 42 votes from editors at U.S. newspapers which are members of the AP. Tennis star Roger Federer (30 votes) and Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt (29) were the only other athletes with totals in the double-digits.

Tiger Woods was named Athlete of the Decade, but the golfer received only nine votes for Athlete of the Year. He was tied with NBA star Kobe Bryant and slugger Albert Pujols in fourth place.

For Johnson, the first race-car driver to be named the AP's Athlete of the Year in its 78-year history, the award is the validation he's been waiting for since he began his historic run in 2006.

"The fourth straight title takes it out of our sport and makes it a point of discussion - like, 'Wow, a race car driver won this thing,' " Johnson said.

The 34-year-old Californian again schooled the competition, winning four of his seven races this season when the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship began in September. In the 10 Chase races, Johnson finished outside the top-10 only once: when he wrecked at Texas with Sam Hornish Jr. three laps into the eighth race, yet stayed in his car while his crew worked on it and finished the race. *