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Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009 | As Ivan “Ironman” Stewart watched Sunday’s Daytona 500 he hoped Jimmie Johnson wouldn’t win the race known as the Super Bowl of NASCAR.

You can now add “honest” to the nicknames that fit Stewart, a motor sports icon who dominated off-road racing for so long that Toyota named a truck after him. Stewart’s reasoning was a natural human emotion. It was a feeling of pride.

It was anything but jealousy for the success of Johnson, a fellow San Diego driver who’s risen from a kid who grew up in El Cajon idolizing Stewart to as big of a name as any in American sports these days.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has a broader audience as a football star, but when Johnson won his third straight NASCAR season title last year to land on a Sports Illustrated cover, the magazine called him Tom Brady in a firesuit.

So imagine the pride Stewart felt when he learned last week that Johnson planned to honor Stewart by taking time from the NASCAR circuit to attend the 63rd annual Viejas Salute to the Champions dinner when Stewart is inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame.

There was a catch, though. If Johnson won Daytona, he was contractually obligated to fulfill sponsor commitments on Wednesday, the night that the Salute dinner is held at the Town and Country’s Grand Exhibit Hall.

But Johnson, sidetracked early in Daytona when he was caught in the tangle of a multi-car crash, didn’t win and will be on hand to introduce Stewart.

“I always want him to win — except this year at Daytona,” Stewart said, “I can say that because I didn’t have anything to do with him not winning.”

If you’re Jimmie Johnson, you look up to Ivan Stewart the way a San Diego kid looks up to Ted Williams in baseball, Bill Walton in basketball or Marcus Allen in football.

Johnson, a Granite Hills High alum, got his start in off-road racing before he made a unique cross-over to NASCAR and eventually grew to dominate the sport. Johnson is only the second driver to win three straight NASCAR titles, matching the record Cale Yarbrough set 30 years ago.

“I’m really excited that Jimmie is coming,” Stewart said. “It’s kind of funny to think back to when he was a kid and I was establishing myself in off-road racing.”

Johnson once told Stewart about a time he was chasing Stewart in a Baja race and he crashed.

“He said he was sitting on rock thinking, ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ ” Stewart said.

Johnson is only 33 years old, so he will no doubt win many more races in his career. Not wanting him to win one year at Daytona is like not wanting the New York Yankees to win the World Series.

Interestingly, Stewart-Johnson isn’t the only mentor-student story I came across while researching the Breitbard Class of 2009 Hall of Fame.

The other three inductees are NFL running back Marshall Faulk, the future Pro Football Hall of Famer from San Diego State; Eric Allen, the 14-year NFL cornerback from Point Loma High; and Floyd Robinson, one of the top hitters in the American League in the early 1960s with the Chicago White Sox from San Diego High.

When Allen was a teenager, he worked in a corner store on Market Street owned by Robinson, a successful businessman and real estate developer in San Diego after his playing career was cut short by a knee injury.

“I learned a lot about responsibility from black businessmen like him when I was a kid,” Allen said. “I used to stock the shelves on Saturday morning at his store. No matter how many touchdowns I scored Friday night, I knew I had to be at work Saturday morning stocking shelves.”

As a running back that could devastate defenses running and catching the ball, Faulk was born for the modern game of football that was shaped so dramatically by the Don Coryell offenses at San Diego State and the Chargers. He later began to appreciate Coryell’s influence.

“I learned a lot about Don Coryell and his impact on football from people in San Diego,” Faulk said. “I talked a lot with Ernie Zampese (a Coryell assistant at SDSU and the Chargers).”

And it just so happens that Don Coryell, now 84, is attending the Salute dinner for the first time in many years. Ivan and Jimmie have company.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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