WASHINGTON — As a Chicagoan and die-hard basketball fan, President Barack Obama described Jimmie Johnson on Wednesday the only way he knew how: He’s the Michael Jordan of NASCAR.
Obama welcomed Johnson, a six-time champion in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and his Hendrick Motorsports team members to the White House to honor their 2013 win.
“Now, everybody knows I’m a Chicago guy, and usually when we do these sports events I make some crack about how the football is not as good as the ’85 Bears or the basketball team is not as good as the Bulls,” the president said. “But today I can’t really say anything, because Jimmie Johnson is pretty much the Michael Jordan of NASCAR.”
Obama’s schedule Wednesday included three events with Israeli President Shimon Peres, a meeting with Senate Democrats and the keynote speech at the League of Conservation Voters. But he took a few minutes to honor Johnson, who’s looking for a seventh win, which would tie him with NASCAR royalty Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
“These days, we’ve got a lot of kids all across the country who want to be like Jimmie, and why shouldn’t they?” the president said.
The brief ceremony in the East Room, adorned with gold-colored curtains and chandeliers, was filled with lawmakers, NASCAR officials and track owners. Also spotted: David Friedman, the acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Johnson was accompanied by his wife, Chandra, and one of his two young daughters, Genevieve. Team owner Rick Hendrick and pit crew chief Chad Knaus joined him onstage.
“I’m so fortunate to have my passion turn into my career,” said Johnson, who addressed a throng of reporters after the event.
Johnson, 38, a California native, began racing motorcycles at the age of 5. He’s won six championships in eight years, faster than any other driver in NASCAR history .
“Now, opposing drivers are saying things like, ‘Unfortunately, we’re driving during the Jimmie Johnson era,’ ” Obama said. “He’s the best there ever was.”
Johnson is an old pro when it comes to White House visits, which, for him, have spanned two administrations and a dozen years.
“He has already got more wins than any other driver, so maybe we should just make it easier on everybody, give the #48 car a permanent White House pass,” Obama said to laughter. “Don’t take my parking spot.”
The first time he made the trek to Washington, Johnson said, his knees were shaking and his voice cracked. But after six championships, he’s grown a bit less nervous.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “It’s mind-blowing.”
The practice of honoring athletes and sports teams has become a tradition at the White House. But Obama also makes sure to mention their efforts to give back to their communities.
Johnson and his wife launched the Jimmie Johnson Foundation in 2006, which has donated nearly $7 million to help children, families and communities through organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Ronald McDonald House.
He opened a bowling lane in Randleman, N.C., for campers, and runs a wellness contest to urge fans to get in shape. This spring, he joined a campaign to help encourage leadership among girls.
“Jimmie caught some flak, I understand, for doing it, but he is the father of two girls, and he understands how important it is for us to lift up our young women and make sure that they know they can do the same stuff that any boy can,” Obama said. “So as somebody who is accustomed to being criticized once in a while, I just want to give you some advice: Keep at it.”