NASCAR champ Johnson awards education grants

The kindergartners and first-graders from a Charlotte magnet school didn’t know they were heading to a surprise assembly to see the only NASCAR Sprint Cup champion of their lifetimes.

Jimmie Johnson then supplied money for a playground and basketball court at their school.

It’s part of the five-time defending Cup champion’s $688,087 in education grants given to 13 schools in three states. It’s a partnership with his charitable foundation and Lowe’s, his primary sponsor.

”I think we had like $60 million in grant (applications) that were sent to us,” Johnson said. ”There’s no way you can fund that, but you just sit there and wish you could. And that’s just in the three areas where we were taking grants. It shows the need and how strained the educational system is. We’re just happy to help make a difference.”

Johnson surprised cheering students at the Collinswood Language Academy, which offers a Spanish immersion program, with about $46,000 for a playground and basketball court. Two other schools in North Carolina, three in Oklahoma and seven in California also will get money.

Johnson is from El Cajon, Calif., and lives in the Charlotte area. His wife, Chandra, is from Oklahoma.

Johnson, who had his Sprint Cup title trophy on stage, briefly took questions from the students. They ranged from one child’s observation that the trophy ”looks like a Formula One trophy” to what driver Tony Stewart is like. Johnson responded with, ”Misunderstood and ornery at times.”

”It’s one thing to go out and raise the money and then have an awards ceremony and pass stuff out,” Johnson said. ”But to actually see the kids, interact with them, that’s the best part of fundraising.”

It’s the second year of a collaboration between the Jimmie Johnson Foundation and Lowe’s Toolbox for Education Champions Grants. The grants go for a variety of projects ranging from science and technology needs to arts, literacy initiatives, athletic facilities and school improvements.

”In this difficult economic time, it is so rewarding to know that our local heroes are taking an active interest in education and providing much-needed financial support,” said Nicolette Grant, principal at Collinswood. ”This gift will have a positive impact on the social and physical development of our students for years to come.”

Johnson, who captured his fifth straight Sprint Cup title last month, picked up his fourth Driver of the Year award this week as the best driver in the United States.

”When the principal was introducing me, to hear, ‘five-time’ and all that kind of stuff, I had goosebumps standing up there hearing about the stuff we’ve accomplished,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he was happy to help out.

”I’ve always had a soft spot for kids,” he said.