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Thursday, September 8, 2011
Jimmie Johnson has a fan in Obama

By David Newton
ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- A hush fell over the East Room of the White House late Wednesday afternoon and all eyes turned to an entrance to the right of the podium, a signal that someone important was about to enter.

And someone important did.

Jimmie Johnson.

OK, President Obama was with him. It is his house, you know.

But in case we needed a reminder of who rules NASCAR's house heading into the upcoming Chase, this was it.

As the president read off Johnson's credentials as the sport's five-time defending Sprint Cup champion, it was apparent that the driver of the No. 48 remains the man to beat, despite all the hoopla around Kyle Busch with a series-high four wins, four-time champion Jeff Gordon coming off his milestone 85th win and rising star Brad Keselowski.

Speaking of Busch, did he use the oil from one of Denny Hamlin's blown engines to slick back his hair?

Just saying …

President Obama & Jimmie Johnson
President Barack Obama rolled out the red carpet for five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Sorry for that aside. That and my $12,240 cab bill -- the cabbie got a little carried away with the zeros on my credit card -- from the airport to the Capitol were about the only things that distracted from the fact that nobody has been able to knock Johnson out of the White House for five straight years.

"Jimmie has made a very difficult and demanding sport look easy," said Obama, who hopes he gets to spend a fifth year in the White House.

If only Johnson could work some of his magic on the national debt, but that's getting into politics and this isn't the place for that. This was Johnson's day to be honored as a champion, even if it's been almost nine months since he claimed his last title, which made the day a bit weird for everyone.

"The timing of it emotionally, that was last year," Johnson said. "That whole series of emotions were gone. I'm so focused on today, so to warp back and let that come back in from what we accomplished, you get that feeling …"

Let me finish. You get that feeling that Johnson may just win a sixth straight. He is on kind of a roll with three straight top-5s, five straight top-10s and an average finish of 6.1 over the past eight races that have him first in the standings heading into Saturday night's regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway.

Not bad for a driver whose team seemingly has struggled for much of the year.

"NASCAR is a sport where anything that can go wrong will go wrong at some point during the season -- similar to being president," said Obama, tossing in a little First Family humor. "That's true even for the best drivers.

"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."

Gordon, Busch, Hamlin, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer -- seven of the other members of the 2010 12-driver Chase who found time in their busy schedules to visit the White House on a dreadfully rainy day -- really didn't need to hear how tough it will be to take Johnson down this year.

They know.

Hamlin, in particular, didn't need to hear Obama praise Johnson for what he "had to overcome [in] the last race" a year ago to keep his streak going.

"We know whose expense that came at," said Hamlin, who had a 15-point lead over Johnson going into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway only to finish second, 39 points out. "I can picture it in my mind, the next time we come here, they're saying, 'This is the guy that knocked Jimmie off, kept him from getting six straight.'

"It's going to happen. We all know it's going to happen eventually. We just hope we're the one to do it."

Hamlin had better focus on making the Chase first. He is 12th in points with virtually no chance of getting inside the top 10 guaranteed a playoff spot. His best bet is to hope that his one win gets him in as the second wild card, or to win at RIR as he has the past two Septembers to secure that spot.

What Hamlin called greatly improved communication with crew chief Mike Ford, only a few weeks removed from a "come to Jesus meeting," is encouraging for the Joe Gibbs Racing team.

But even if the driver who was the preseason favorite of many rallies to make the Chase, Johnson will remain the favorite. Perhaps that's the real reason Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart chose to fulfill previous obligations instead of coming to Washington. Perhaps they didn't want to be reminded of just how great Johnson is -- again.

By the way, they all should have been here for the reason Johnson gave last week on Twitter:

"When POTUS [President of the United States] sends an invite and wants to honor you at the White House, you accept. #respect."

This day was all about respect, whether it was for Johnson's accomplishments or White House security.

Did I mention that security was insane? Not that it was a surprise, but they showed absolutely no respect for the NASCAR Hard Card as identification, as my ESPN colleague Marty Smith will attest after standing in the rain for nearly 30 minutes.

When Johnson emerged into the East Room more than an hour before the festivities, I wasn't allowed to walk 20 feet to say hello. Apparently, there are more restrictions in the White House than there are in the Cup garage. I actually spent as much one-on-one time with Johnson inside the White House grounds as I did Obama.

That would be none, for the record.

My conversation with Five-Time came on the telephone from inside the White House press briefing room, while Johnson was in a plane on the runway headed home. Veteran White House correspondents weren't impressed.

Johnson and the other drivers didn't get much time with the president, either, as his plate is pretty full these days.

"It was pretty brief," Johnson said. "He was a few minutes late, briefly saw other drivers. then he left pretty quick. A few years ago, there was a lot more time to interact."

When Johnson last came to the White House two years ago, as Obama reminded, he was celebrating his third straight title. Few imagined the streak still would be going.

Yes, another reminder of Johnson's dominance. another reminder that he is the driver to beat when the Chase begins next weekend in Chicago.

"I was surprised he was that up to speed on things," Johnson said of the way Obama rattled off his statistics and family updates.

The president could learn a lot from watching NASCAR. He could learn that as the economy goes, so goes a sport that depends heavily on advertising and sponsor dollars. He could learn that much of that has disappeared, which is why a team like Roush Fenway Racing that was so sponsor-rich a few years ago may have to shrink to three teams in 2012.

He already has learned there is trash-talking, apparently getting briefed on Bowyer's reference to Juan Pablo Montoya as a "jackass" after their run-in at Atlanta on Tuesday.

"I thought I was watching WWF!" said Obama, getting yet another laugh from the crowd. "But that's good. You know, you have to have a little feistiness, and these guys are extraordinary competitors."

But none is more extraordinary than Johnson, who ended the formal portion of the ceremony by giving Obama a pair of No. 48 driving gloves and one of his helmets.

This prompted Obama, who has taken some criticism from Republicans over Washington being the most dangerous city in the country to drive, to crack his second joke about not being allowed to operate any vehicle except what he called "Golf Cart One."

Johnson knows a thing or two about golf carts, too. He fell off the top of one in December 2006 shortly after winning his first title.

That's about the only mistake he's made over the past five years, and Wednesday at the White House was another reminder of that for his competitors.

"I remember going to watch Tony [Stewart]," Johnson said of his trip to the White House after the 2005 season. "There is nothing more motivating than seeing the champion being honored. I remember the feeling vividly of leaving the White House and thinking, 'I want to be that guy.'"

Johnson is that guy.

It may not make him more important than Obama in Washington, but in NASCAR nobody is bigger.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.