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President Barack Obama welcomed NASCAR champion Tony Stewart and the 11 other Chase drivers from last season to the White House on Tuesday afternoon, saluting both Stewart's amazing Homestead victory and NASCAR's support of the military.
The following is a transcript of Obama's comments:
Full disclosure: I invited Tony here today because of what he did on the track, but I was also hoping he could give me some tips on the media, because he's got that quiet, reserved personality. I figured I could stay out of trouble if Tony gave me some advice on that.
It's good to see No. 14 on the South Lawn. Every year, I try to take a lap. Nobody lets me do it, but I'm still holding out hope that I'm going to be able to get behind the wheel.
A few years ago, Jimmie Johnson showed up, showed me how to start one of these things up, showed me how everything worked. It was impressive, but what was even more impressive is he got in and got out dressed like he is now, and he did not rip his suit – which took some skill.
I do want to acknowledge Jimmie, because even though his five-year streak is over, I think we can all acknowledge he is one of the all-time greats, and I know he is itching to take the title back. So congratulations, Jimmie, on all you've done.
But this was Tony's year. And Smoke gave us one of the most dramatic finishes we have ever seen. After barely making the Chase, Tony took off, winning an amazing four races in the postseason. Then came the final race in Miami, a must-win. Tony went all out.
Twice, he came from the back of the pack, passing 118 cars – sometimes three-wide. Tony said it felt like he passed half the state of Florida. But in the end, he held on to take the checkered flag and win the championship on a tiebreaker.
Tony himself acknowledged he didn't see it coming; nobody saw it coming. We've all heard about athletes who say they're going to do what it takes to win it all, but back in August with the season winding down, Tony predicted he wouldn't be able to pull it off.
In fact, he said if he did end up winning the championship – and this is a quote – "I'll declare I'm a total bumbling idiot." Here's your chance, Tony.
But I think Tony's hero – the great A.J. Foyt – put it best when he said, "The reason Tony won is because he drove the best race of his life, period." And he did it with the rest of these drivers on his tail.
I want to make special mention out of this group of Carl Edwards. He's also a member of my Fitness Council. Carl battled Tony down to the wire and came about as close as you can get without actually winning, and congratulations on all your unbelievable success as well. I think everybody who saw Carl after the race, it was a great lesson in how you handle disappointment with grace and with class. He's an outstanding representative for NASCAR.
And that's typical [because] underneath the helmets, behind all the trash-talking – and I notice it seems to be picking up quite a bit lately – these are some outstanding men. And it's true about the whole NASCAR organization.
One thing I especially want to thank NASCAR for is the support you've provided for our men and women in uniform. You give active duty soldiers, wounded warriors [and] veterans all a VIP experience at races. And Michelle [Obama] had a chance to see that first-hand at the Homestead race last year.
You look out for military families, you look out for Gold Star families, you make regular visits to Walter Reed to raise spirits there. For you guys to give that much back to folks who have given so much to us as a country to protect us and keep us safe is remarkable. So I want to thank you all for what you do on behalf of our troops.
So congratulations again to Tony and his entire team, thanks to everybody in NASCAR for what you do for our country, thank you for not tearing up my grass and best of luck in the season to come.
For this year's White House visit with President Obama, it appears NASCAR's Chase drivers are all in.
Just seven months after four drivers in the Sprint Cup Series playoff skipped a visit with Obama due to schedule conflicts, NASCAR announced Obama will welcome Tony Stewart and all 11 of his 2011 Chase rivals in a ceremony at the White House on Tuesday.
According to a NASCAR press release on Wednesday afternoon, all of last year's Chase drivers will attend the April 17 event. That includes Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards, who turned down the chance to visit the White House last year.
Last year, the drivers who didn't attend the event cited various reasons. Edwards said it was the "busiest time of my life," Stewart said he had an obligation to fulfill and Harvick later said his decision had to do with the process of shuttering Kevin Harvick Inc.
Greg Biffle also did not make last year's White House trip due to a sponsor obligation in Minnesota the same day.
The other drivers who will attend the 2012 version of the ceremony include Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch. NASCAR CEO Brian France will also be present.
Johnson, Hamlin, Gordon, Kenseth and both Busch brothers attended last year's White House visit, which was held Sept. 7 in the East Room.
Athletes skipping the White House visit has become a hot-button issue due to the volatile political climate that currently exists in the United States. In January, Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas passed on meeting Obama with his teammates due to his political beliefs.
It was raining, and I was all alone.
Well, not all alone. Though the rest of the NASCAR contingent visiting the White House had breezed through the Secret Service checkpoints and the security hut, I was left behind due to a discrepancy between the date of birth printed on the official entry list and the one on my driver's license.
As such, I had to stay back and step into a makeshift penalty box (walls of bicycle fencing) while the Secret Service and White House staffers stood nearby.
They were polite and apologetic, but explained that all the information had to match up. I was to remain in the time-out area until another background check had cleared.
I looked at my watch. It was 4:05 p.m., and I had woken up at 5 a.m. to drive through torrential rains and reach Washington in time to see the President of the United States greet NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson and seven other Chase drivers.
But as the minutes ticked past the event's scheduled 4 p.m. start time, I began to prepare myself for disappointment.
"That's OK," I thought. "Maybe I'll get to come next year. Or maybe not. But at least it'll be a funny story someday."
Just then, a Secret Service officer looked in my direction.
"Is there a Jeffrey here?" he asked.
Since I was the only person in the penalty box, I nodded. He asked me to confirm my date of birth again, and this time it was like saying, "Open sesame!"
With the magic words, I was set free and proceeded on a solo walk to the next security checkpoint – where I again confirmed my identity – then went through a place similar to airport security, then onto the White House.
The security checkpoints are so far away from the actual White House that the president's home isn't even visible through the trees and surrounding buildings. But once I cleared the final security area, I turned left into a semicircular driveway and walked up to a portico where Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 car was parked outside.
Yep, this was the place.
The door was opened by members of a military honor guard – I think they were Marines – and I was surprised at how many of them stood in the hallways as greeters. They all smiled and offered welcome greetings and pointed in the direction I was supposed to go, and I quickly walked past the portraits and side rooms with only time for a passing glance at each of them.
I wasn't sure what to expect – having only been in the White House once, on a tour when I was maybe 10 years old – but it reminded me of a palace or one of those old estates where you can tour through the rooms (like the Biltmore Estate in the North Carolina mountains).
I followed the sounds of a jazz band – up a marble staircase and down another hall – and entered into a foyer just in time to see people shuffling into the East Room, where the event was to be held.
Phew. I hadn't missed anything yet.
The East Room is a small ballroom filled with three ornate chandeliers – emphasis on small. There was seating for perhaps 150 people, and it was recognizable in name only. I had heard of the East Room, but couldn't recall the context.
There was a long, red-carpeted hallway attached to it, though, and that looked familiar. Finally, someone solved the mystery for me and noted it was the hallway where presidents make televised addresses to the nation. They turn a corner, walk down the hall and stop at a microphone where the camera is set up.
The most memorable speech from that spot recently was Obama's comments on the death of Osama bin Laden. You'd never know it from TV, but during those speeches, the president is basically speaking in a doorway.
Anyway, about 10 minutes after everyone was seated and the White House press corps had poured in – mostly photographers who turned on their bright TV lights that altered the look of the room – the Chase drivers were introduced to applause.
And then, the words everyone came to hear: "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States."
Obama walked in – accompanied by Johnson – and the crowd rose as if it was in a courtroom and a judge had just entered. Except there was sustained applause until the president put a stop to it.
I had never seen a president with my own eyes before – even a former president. And I know half the people in our polarized country aren't Obama fans at all, but it was still the President of the United States. And that was damn cool.
A funny thing, though: Sometimes when I see a celebrity, I'll think, 'Wow, they look different in person.' Shorter, taller, smaller, bigger.
Not Obama, though. He looked exactly like he does on TV. So as I sat there listening to his speech from about 50 feet away, I had to remind myself that this was live and in person and not something I was watching on a screen.
Obama had met with the drivers beforehand for maybe five or 10 minutes, and his speech was just under seven minutes. Overall, his total time commitment to the event couldn't have been more than 15 or 20 minutes. Which makes sense, because he's probably kind of busy with other stuff.
Anyway, he made some nice comments about the drivers and about NASCAR, cracked some jokes to an audience that was eager to laugh at them, posed for some pictures, shook some hands and left.
The drivers mingled with some of the audience members – the vast majority of whom I had never seen before and had no idea who they were – and then, after about 10 minutes, the friendly military honor guard politely asked people to leave the room so it could be cleared for whatever was next.
Before I left, I snuck over to the podium Obama had just used to take a picture. But the official presidential seal was gone from the front of it; apparently, the seal moves where the president goes.
I walked back out of the White House the way I came – this time stopping in a couple of the side rooms and admiring the portraits – and a Secret Service officer buzzed the security door at the exit.
It was a lot easier to get out of the White House than it was to get in. And though the visit was short and sweet, it was surely worth the trip.
No matter what your politics, those hallways hold reminders of our history and the greatness of our country. I was proud to be there.
Here's a short (and very amateur) video we took at Wednesday's NASCAR visit to the White House:
President Barack Obama welcomed NASCAR into the White House Wednesday afternoon to honor five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and seven of his 2010 Chase competitors.
Hailing the drivers for their work both on the track and off, President Obama stood alongside Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.
Other 2010 Chase drivers Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart said they could not reschedule prior commitments to make the trip. However, the drivers were not the only ones unable to attend Wednesday's ceremonies, as NASCAR CEO Brian France was unable to make the trip due to weather in the area.
Standing in the East Room of the White House, President Obama congratulated Johnson on his five titles and said he was not only one of the best drivers of all time, but "up there with the best sport dynasties" such as the New York Yankees, the Boston Celtics and the Montreal Canadiens.
"Which is not bad for the son of a machine operator and a school bus driver who still has plenty of seasons ahead of him," Obama said.
The president also said he had noticed some "trash-talking" this season, saying that is what makes the sport so exciting to watch.
The five-time champion thanked the president and presented him with a pair of gloves worn during last year's Chase.
As throngs of people clamored to meet Johnson and the other Chase drivers, Kyle Busch reflected on his day at the White House, commenting on how special it was to see American history in person.
"It's an honor and a privilege just to come around, get the tour, see everything and see where our nation was built on," he said. "(It) was certainly fun."
Among the favorites to beat Johnson for this year's title, Busch said the president told him to "keep my speed up" in order to get the job done.
Burton echoed Busch's comments, saying it was an honor to be a part of the history the White House has to offer.
"Every time I come (to the White House), there's a different piece of artwork I don't remember, there's something different I don't remember," he said. "It's kind of an archive of our history in some ways, especially as it relates to our President.
"Everybody knows who Thomas Jefferson is, but people don't necessarily know his wife. You know what I mean? It's just really neat, the history. The view out of here, it's unmistakable where you are. Out of every window you look, there's something that's just an iconic figure of America. It's just a really cool experience."
For Jeff Gordon, the trip was a special moment shared with his family. Accompanied by wife Ingrid and 4-year-old daughter Ella, Gordon reflected on his daughter's reaction.
"To see her light up meeting the president coming to the White House is a great family moment for us," he said. "So, yeah, we're having a good week."
Getting the best of Johnson on Tuesday in Atlanta, Gordon said Obama did not offer any advice on how to beat his teammate, but claimed to be "a pretty good driver."
"He wanted to get behind the wheel," he said. "So we'll have to test that out one day."
– Jeff Gluck contributed to this story
President Obama welcomed NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and seven other Chase drivers from 2010 on Wednesday afternoon in the East Room of the White House.
Here's a full transcript of his comments:
It's great to welcome NASCAR back to Washington. It's great to have No. 48 parked outside. I was just telling these guys that I'm not allowed to drive much these days. Basically just my golf cart at Camp David, which is called Golf Cart One. (Audience laughs) That's true.
But I will say it's pretty tough to look at No. 48 and not want to jump in it and take a few laps, although Jimmie would not be happy with me if I did that.
Last time many of these drivers were here, Jimmie was celebrating his third straight championship. He's got a couple more titles under his belt now, but there's another big change in the Johnson house: He and Chandra are now parents of Genevieve Marie, who was born last July, so congratulations on that.
I told Jimmie you cannot beat (having) daughters, and I know Jimmie is pretty excited to be a daddy. He whipped out the iPhone with pictures on it the minute I asked him about it.
I hear he is in charge of taking Genevieve Marie to music class and because of his unique work schedule, Jimmie is usually the only man in it. But that's a good sign of being a good dad.
So Jimmie's got a lot to be proud of. And that's especially true when you think of what it means to win five championships in a row.
NASCAR is a sport where anything that can go wrong will go wrong at some point during the season – similar to being President. That's true even for the best drivers. And with so much extraordinary talent going bumper-to-bumper in every race, just making the Chase is hard enough – let alone winning the whole thing.
And that's why Jimmie is not just one of the best drivers of all time, he's up there with some of the great sports dynasties. If you think about it, only the Boston Celtics, the Yankees and the Canadiens have ever won more than four titles in a row. And now, Jimmie is breathing down the necks of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for the most NASCAR titles ever, which is not bad for the son of a machine operator and a school bus driver who still has plenty of seasons ahead of him.
Jimmie has made a very difficult and demanding sport look easy. But this year, the No. 48 team also showed its toughness. They entered the last race of the Chase trailing and ended up pulling off an extraordinary comeback. And if you ask Jimmie, he'll give credit to that team, led by owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Chad Knaus – who couldn't be here today.
We also need to give credit, though, to the other Chase drivers up here who want Jimmie to know that the second he makes a mistake, they're going to be ready to knock him out of Victory Lane.
I did observe that lately there's been some trash-talking in NASCAR. I thought I was watching WWF! But that's good. You know, you've got to have a little feistiness, and these guys are extraordinary competitors. And that's what makes this sport so exciting to watch. Everything can come down to just one race, one pit stop, one split-second decision.
What also makes NASCAR special is the difference it makes in the lives of so many people, especially our troops and their families. I personally thank all these guys for what they've been doing on behalf of military families who are obviously huge fans of NASCAR.
Last month, drivers and staff toured Walter Reed Hospital and served dinner to 400 wounded warriors and their loved ones. NASCAR has been a huge supporter of the Joining Forces program that Michelle and Dr. Jill Biden have set up to support military families. This morning, Jimmie made a special visit to the Pentagon to honor folks over there. And later this week, NASCAR will be honoring our military and first responders again at Richmond the night before the anniversary of 9/11.
So I want to congratulate Jimmie, I want to congratulate all the drivers who are on the stage for their extraordinary success and for the success of NASCAR and everything they do for our country. Good luck getting into this year's Chase, everybody. We will all be watching. Thank you very much.
Carl Edwards serves on the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition and has a good relationship with people like Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
So if people say Edwards is skipping next week's White House visit with President Obama because it's a political statement, the Roush Fenway Racing driver disagrees.
Why isn't Edwards attending? He's simply busy, he said.
"I think that's blown a little bit out of proportion," he said. "...This is not only the busiest time of the year, this is about the busiest time of my life.
"The folks at the White House, I spoke with them. They understand and the NASCAR folks understand. If something changes then I'll be there, but, right now, I'm just not able to go."
Edwards, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle will not be attending. Kurt Busch was originally announced as not attending but said Friday he will be there. Obama will still honor five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson and six other Chase drivers from last season.
Kurt Busch will be at next week's White House visit with President Obama after all, he said Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Busch had previously been listed by NASCAR as one of the drivers who is not attending. But the Penske Racing driver said that "all along, it was my intention to go – we just had to clear up a scheduling issue."
"We'll be there next Wednesday," he said. "I mean, who would turn down the opportunity to go to the White House? To me, it's an honor and it's a privilege. I've had the chance to meet Bush and Obama in the past. To be a Chase driver and go to the White House, it's an important visit because I might not make the Chase every year, and I'll miss out on those opportunities."
Busch had to move his official photoshoot for next season, which has to be completed by the end of September. That makes this month even busier for Busch than it already was, but he said moving the date was "obviously the right choice."
That leaves four drivers – Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards – who will not attend the White House visit, according to NASCAR.
Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick expressed regret for not being able to attend NASCAR's visit to the White House and President Obama next week, saying they had other obligations.
Each of the drivers had previously been on trips to the White House.
"We do have an obligation that we have to fulfill," Stewart said. "I've enjoyed every trip and I've been very honored to be invited. I'm very sorry that I'm going to miss the chance to go again.
"There's a lot of people in this nation that would love to have that opportunity and spend time with the president and just have a couple minutes of his time. It's a tough schedule that we have."
Harvick said it there was "a lot going on" in the week leading up to the Chase cutoff race and said it was too difficult to reschedule previous plans. He added it "wasn't anybody's business" what commitment was keeping him from the White House.
"I understand the honor and things," he said. "Just with everything we have going right now, there's no way possible to reschedule the things we had going next week.
Biffle said he was "disgusted" by people saying he "rejected" the invitation, calling that kind of talk "disrespectful." The Roush Fenway Racing driver said he has a picture of himself shaking hands with Obama in the Oval Office and proudly displays it at home.
But the driver said he has to attend a function for sponsor 3M in Minnesota, and it cannot be moved. Biffle said he got the White House invitation two weeks ago but that the 3M event had been planned for months.
"I called (3M) and talked to them about the invitation, and this was very important to them," Biffle said. "The function is designed around me and they really can't have it if I can't go. Unfortunately, the date conflicts with the invitation."
Biffle said if it were a simple appearance or autograph session, he would have rescheduled. But this was an event built around him, with people traveling from other countries to meet him.
"I'm very flattered for the invitation and I would love to go," he said. "I (would) take advantage of that. I've been to Walter Reed (Army Medical Center) for seven years in a row; things like this are important to me. I simply have an obligation."
Stewart also said if he could have rescheduled, he would have.
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