Obama welcomes NASCAR champ to White House

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 19, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who can turn left about as well as anyone, was honored by President Barack Obama on Wednesday in a ceremony that praised NASCAR as a "uniquely American sport" filled with patriotic, dedicated drivers.

In a brief ceremony lasting less than 10 minutes, Obama described Johnson as a champion since the age of 5, when Johnson began racing motocross in California. Obama cracked a joke about the No. 48 Chevy parked on the South Lawn. And he thanked NASCAR both for protecting the environment and supporting the troops.

Johnson's win last year was his third in a row, and he's now third in points among drivers for 2009. Setbacks — such as running out of fuel at a race in Michigan on Sunday — are blips in a career that likely will land the 33-year-old driver in racing's Hall of Fame.

"I'm just glad Jimmie could be here so we can honor him for winning his third consecutive Sprint Cup Championship," Obama said.

Wednesday's event was the ninth time the White House has welcomed a NASCAR champion, with the first coming under President Jimmy Carter.

Such ceremonies are traditionally nonpolitical, and Johnson said after the ceremony that he was glad at the chance to tour the White House and meet Obama. He noted that his last visit as a Sprint Cup champion was in February 2007. "We've been here in the winter freezing our butts off, and today we're sweating," he joked.

"It's a really neat day for us all," Johnson said, wearing a dark suit and holding hands with his wife, Chandra. "You get to tour the White House and meet the president."

If Obama wasn't Johnson's first choice for president, neither, apparently, was Republican candidate John McCain.

Johnson's only campaign donation was $2,300 to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 2007, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

That contribution landed the same week as donations from team owner Rick Hendrick and fellow team driver Jeff Gordon.

Wednesday's event was filled with White House pomp, with uniformed doormen at attention and the Sprint Cup carried onto the South Lawn on a silver tray. Standing alongside Obama and Johnson were others in last year's Sprint Cup Chase: Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart.

Obama thanked Hendrick and Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus.

He gave a shout-out to "The King," Richard Petty, lanky in a summer suit and dark glasses.

"With a family tradition that's generations strong, the Pettys are about as close as you can get to a NASCAR dynasty," Obama said.

Also in the audience were Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Juan Pablo Montoya, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip.

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