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The President hosts NASCAR and champion Jimmie Johnson at the White House....and the sport of stock car racing itself is the big winner

  President Obama peeks under the hood of Jimmie Johnson's Chevy (Photo: White House)

   By Mike Mulhern

   He shoots, he scores.
    President Barack Obama, that is.
    So mark this down as a home run for NASCAR.
   It wasn't exactly a turning point in NASCAR history, because the White House isn't new territory for stock car men. But for President Obama – amid the continuing search for peace in the Middle East, and the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the North Korean flare-ups, and the other things a president has to deal with – to take a few minutes out of his schedule to host an 'afternoon tea' with three-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and 16 other stock car racers was indeed a big deal.
   And many of the Washington politicos took notice of the Wednesday tour.
   After all, NASCAR executives and racers are generally considered conservative Republicans – and their campaign financing checks show that. And while John McCain is a well-known figure in the NASCAR garage, from his Phoenix roots, and spent some time in NASCAR country during last year's presidential campaign, Obama did not attend any NASCAR races. And it's not really clear if any NASCAR executive or track official really made a serious attempt to invite Obama.
   Now, though, that's history.
   And Obama is the man who is taking the first step to get on the NASCAR team:  "One of the core values of the NASCAR community is the belief that service isn't just something you do once in a while when it's convenient -- it's a way of life.
  "I think Jeff Gordon put it best when he said simply 'Any person out there should do something some way to give back to their community.'
  "And that's what folks from more than 150 countries see around the world when they tune in to your races -- not just your speed and your skill, but also your compassion, your dedication to your families and our communities, how much you love this country and how strongly you support the heroes who serve it.
  "That's the face of America that you show to the world."
  Jimmie Johnson's championship 48, on the White House South Lawn: and President Obama offers praise of NASCAR HERE.

   During Wednesday's session at the White House Obama praised NASCAR, praised Richard Petty, and said he'd like to come to a Sprint Cup race: "I would love to do it. I was supposed to do it during the campaign, but we just ended up having to travel too much, and we weren't able to devote the amount of time that I wanted to.
    "Hopefully sometime during my presidency I'm going to get out there."
   Officially the session was part of a White House tradition of inviting various sports champions to the nation's capital to be honored, and this time it was Jimmie Johnson center stage.
   Or rather Johnson was supposed to be the man center stage.
   Actually the man at the heart of this story was the president.
   Now the late Bill France Jr.'s Darlington snub of then presidential candidate Bill Clinton way back when is well known.
   And the George Bushes, I and II, were well known to NASCAR men.
   Of course the quintessential presidential move by NASCAR was inviting Ronald Reagan to Daytona, to watch Petty beat Cale Yarborough in 1984.
   Now the speculation is hot about what NASCAR race might attract the new U.S. president.
   Most obvious, of course, might be the California 500 in Los Angeles in October. But then the Dover race in mid-September – in Vice President Joe Biden's home state – might be an interesting move, and just a short helicopter sprint from D. C.
   Obama was remarkably effuse in his praise of stock car racing. And he made it clear he was supporting Detroit's marketing efforts in NASCAR:
   "NASCAR is a quintessential American sport," the President said.
   "I think that its fan base is now world-wide.
   "But when you think about its roots…when you think about all the people who have such an attachment to the drivers…and when you think about the fact that right now the U.S. auto industry is going through a tough time, we wanted to make sure we highlight the fact that this is a great sport -- a great brand, for not just NASCAR itself but also for America.
   "We thought it was a great opportunity to celebrate some champions."
    NASCAR, which has had a rough summer on the track, with a pair of Monday rain-delays that soured TV ratings, and other issues, couldn't have asked for a bigger PR hit than this.
   And at the perfect moment – Sunday's Michigan race showed a TV ratings turnaround….the typically red-hot Bristol Saturday night race is on tap this weekend…an unusual NASCAR stop in Montreal is set for next week, at the city-center Formula One course…and then Atlanta and Richmond wind up the regular season, with the championship playoff cut on the line.
   NASCAR has needed a big, big hit, and even if it couldn't get it on the track, it certainly got one in this White House affair.
   And Obama wasn't a bit reluctant to use the stage to make some points with this demographic: Detroit, Obama said, should remain strongly committed to NASCAR racing because "I think that it's about as good advertising as you can get.
    "If somebody's excited about NASCAR, that means they're excited about cars.
    "And we want to make sure that people know what great American cars are.
    "Obviously it's understandable -- at a time when GM has gone through some tough times -- that they may need to cut back sponsorships briefly.
    "But over the long term -- if we look five to 10 years out -- I think they're going to come back stronger than ever.
    "And I think their association with NASCAR makes a great difference."
    And Obama was quick on the uptake about NASCAR as a 'family' sport, and a family itself.
    Maybe that will help some tickets?
    In fact Obama sounded at times like a NASCAR promoter. Maybe he could help Gillian Zucker at LA's Auto Club Speedway.
    "Families can go to the track and can see these great races and enjoy a good family event that lasts for awhile, and it's affordable," Obama said….perhaps stretching the 'affordability' part, but what the heck.  
    "But part of it is also the fact that I think racing teams themselves are a family.
    "And it's a reminder that the guy behind the wheel is not the only person involved in this thing: that it takes a pit crew, it takes the engineers back at the shop.
    "All of that contributes to the sense of community -- that is part of what makes this country strong."

   Not every NASCAR driver invited made the White House trip. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth all had other things scheduled. Busch was busy at Bristol Motor Speedway, winning Wednesday night's NASCAR Truck race.


   President Obama and Jimmie Johnson and friends at the White House (Photo: White House)

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