WASHINGTON -- Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson had the gas to get to the White House on Wednesday, where President Barack Obama honored the 2008 winner as well as auto racing.
"NASCAR is a uniquely American sport," Obama said beneath the South Portico, flanked by nine of the 12 drivers who competed last year for NASCAR's top prize. Three drivers had scheduling conflicts and could not attend.
Obama said NASCAR drivers work to support U.S. troops, local schools and environmental innovation. Obama said the sport certainly has grown since "moonshiners" raced in Daytona Beach, Fla., to become a service-oriented organization known around the world.
"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," the president said. "That's the face of America that you show to the world."
In a race on Sunday, Johnson gambled on fuel but ran out of gas while leading with two laps to go. Instead of winning, he finished 33rd. It was the third time this season that Johnson has run out of gas, but that wasn't a problem on Wednesday.
Joining Johnson at the White House were other Sprint Cup drivers and past champions. Special guests included wounded soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and campers from the Victory Junction Gang Camp in Randleman, N.C., which NASCAR supports.
Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet also was parked on the White House driveway, with the glittery Sprint Cup perched on a table nearby.
"It's not every day that we have a championship stock car parked out on the South Lawn. Fortunately, we got Jimmie to agree not to do any burnouts and tear up my back yard," Obama said.
He also joked that he wanted to take the car out for a few laps in exchange for the free parking, but that the Secret Service told him no.
It was the first time such a wide selection of NASCAR drivers had been invited to the White House. Typically, only the champion attends.
In a live interview on ESPN2's "NASCAR Now" after the event, Obama said the racing series has a family atmosphere that has helped it become a strong force in America's sports culture.
"Families can go to the track and they can see these great racers and enjoy a good family event that lasts for a while, and it's affordable," he said. "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, and it takes the engineers back at the shop.
"All that, I think, contributes to a sense of community that is part of what makes this country strong," Obama said.
He said NASCAR also is good for the ailing U.S. auto industry.
"It's about as good advertising as you can get," the president said.
Obama is 2-for-2 picking sports champions, but he wasn't ready Wednesday to pick a winner for the 2009 Sprint Cup.
He correctly chose the Pittsburgh Steelers to win this year's Super Bowl and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels for the NCAA basketball title. But he is holding off on baseball, waiting to see whether his beloved Chicago White Sox have a chance to make the World Series.
"The key to making good predictions in sports is waiting until the last minute to make a prediction," Obama said in the interview. "You guys call me up right before the end of the race and I'll let you know who I think's going to come out on top."
Three races remain to determine the 12-driver field for the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins in one month.
Tony Stewart, a two-time series champion, is in the lead and already has clinched his spot. Jeff Gordon is ranked second. In third place is Johnson, the defending champion. He is only the second NASCAR driver after Cale Yarborough to win three consecutive titles.