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Jimmie Johnson: Sunday's goat at Michigan, Wednesday's hit at the White House...and here Saturday night?

  Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   BRISTOL, Tenn.
   Jimmie Johnson has had a whirlwind week…and maybe that personal tour of the White House by the President helped make up for losing Sunday's Michigan 400.
   Not many drivers in NASCAR can say they've shaken hands with one president, much less two, like Johnson has.  
   So, in Johnson's view, how does Barack Obama compare, in person, with George Bush?
   "To have the experience to go up and meet President Bush and then to meet President Obama, it couldn't have been more different," Johnson says.
    "It (Wednesday's visit) was much more conversational and comfortable and social and relaxed…and it was just a totally different feel. You almost felt like you could leave there and have a beer with the guy…which was interesting.
    "He pointed out a photo on the wall of him and some friends sitting around a table having a beer.
    "He just seemed like a down-to-earth guy. And regardless of your points of view on politics, and which party you pulled for and voted for, he seemed like a great man and hopefully leads us in the right direction."
    Johnson says the Wednesday White House run was fast-paced: "Everything took place pretty quickly…and I wasn't aware of what was all going to go on.
     "I'm just standing in the hallway, and expecting a big entourage of people to walk around the corner. And the President came around the corner with another man, and that was it.
     "It was extremely comfortable and low-key. He made me really comfortable out of the gate.
    "I was showing him around (the race car), and I certainly was nervous. But as soon as we got out to the car, he wanted to look under the hood and see what the car was made of and had a lot of questions…and it made it really easy for me.
    "I tried getting him into the car, but he was afraid climbing in he'd blow the seat out of his pants."
    Johnson laughed.

    Johnson, of course, has a direction of his own these next few weeks – that fourth straight NASCAR Cup championship, which would be a milestone in this sport.
    And how Johnson might fare in Saturday night's Sharpie 500, well, that's up for debate. He doesn't typically run well here, but he did well in the spring race. And he's got a big enough lead in the standings over most of his title rivals that he can gamble – he's more than 400 points ahead of the playoff cutoff with three races to go, sitting third in the Sprint Cup standings behind Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.
    "The way we ran in the spring I think we have a great opportunity to win here -- our first time," Johnson says.
   "In the spring we knew we had a good car, but we were a little hesitant to adjust it because things were going so well.
    "We'll be more aggressive this time…a lot like we did at Michigan: We rolled the dice and unfortunately it didn't work out."
     The man to keep an eye on this weekend, in more ways than one, is Kyle Busch, who has fallen to 15th in the standings, 70 points behind the playoff cut.
   Johnson says, in one sense, he hopes Busch doesn't make the chase: "because he's dangerous.
   "But from the flip-side, he's one of the best drivers in the sport and he needs to be in the chase."
    Which could make Busch dangerous right here.
    Johnson says with so many drivers fighting for the last few spots in the playoffs "it's a very stressful race.
   "And a lot can happen at this track. It's kind of like Talladega in a way -- things out of your control can take place."

    At least this 500 shouldn't be a gas mileage race.
    And just what was the deal with the Hendrick cars and fuel at Michigan? Mark Martin ran out, Johnson ran out….yet Jeff Gordon made it.
   "Man, I don't have a clue," Johnson says. "Even at a plate track we pit before anyone else.
   "It could be horsepower. It could be driver-style.
    "At Michigan we backed the pace down a bunch -- I was running half-throttle. And we didn't make it.
    "Mark took even more extreme efforts to save fuel and didn't.
     "But Jeff made it.
    "So we're a little curious why one car had great fuel mileage and the other two didn't.
     "We've got to figure out what's going on there.
     "It could be jetting (of the carburetor). We all had the same power plants obviously; but jetting and driving styles, and also the chassis set-up, can dictate the fuel burn as well.
    "Those are the three variables that we're really looking at."

     Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, and Jeff Burton at President Obama's White House (Photo: NASCAR)

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